Math Anxiety Effects on Elementary-Aged Students
For many students, math can be seen as a challenging subject
to grasp in school. The cause for this is a phenomenon known as math anxiety.
Math anxiety can look different from student to student, but oftentimes
students will feel anxious or uneasy when presented with a mathematical
problem. In recent years several studies have been conducted to further our knowledge
of math anxiety. However, much of this research has been focused on middle
school-aged students and above. The following paper will discuss what math
anxiety is, the theories behind it, list potential causes, adverse effects, and
list interventions that have proven to be effective for students.
Math Anxiety Effects In Elementary Aged Students
Math anxiety can look different from
student to student. Siaw et al. (2020) explain, “Mathematical anxiety can be
defined as fear, hopelessness, paralysis, and mental disorientation that
emerges among some individuals when solving mathematical problems” (Siaw et
al., 2020, p. 48). These feelings of fear and anxiety can also manifest into physical
reactions in elementary-aged students. I have seen this be the case on several
occasions in my fifth-grade classroom. Although I am only entering my third
year teaching, I have already encountered several students who suffer from math
anxiety. When these students were presented with math assessments they would
report feeling anxious and also have physical reactions such as sweating or a
Although the students I work with are only ten and eleven years old
they have already developed a severe adverse reaction to math. The concerns
around math anxiety are many. Teachers of elementary-aged students need to be
aware of math anxiety and how to reduce it. If math anxiety is not addressed in
elementary school, it can continue to compound and affect students more
severely. The goal of my research is to discover why students at such a young
age have developed math anxiety. I also wondered what the negative effects of
math anxiety were. Finally, I was eager to discover proven interventions to
help my students immediately. In the next section, I will discuss theories related to math
anxiety, underlying causes for math anxiety, and the negative effects of math
Review of Research
Theories Behind Math Anxiety
Upon further research into math anxiety, I discovered that
there are three main theories related to math anxiety and mathematical
performance in students. These three theories are The Deficit Theory, The
Cognitive Interference Theory, and The Reciprocal Theory. Namkung et al. (2019)
explain, “The deficit theory posits that poor mathematics performance and
memories of poor mathematics performance leads to higher math anxiety in the
future” (Namkung et al., 2019, p. 462). In other words, a student's poor
performance in math can affect their attitude towards math in the future.
Namkung et al. (2019) also write, “The cognitive interference theory (also
referred to as debilitation anxiety model) posits that it is math anxiety that
affects subsequent mathematics performance. The interference mechanism lies in
three ways, during preprocessing, processing, and retrieval of information”
(Namkung et al., 2019, p. 462). With this theory, math anxiety can lead to
students avoiding math-related activities and situations during preprocessing. For example, students with math anxiety enjoy math less and are less motivated
and confident in the subject. This then leads to students being less likely to
continue in educational paths that involve mathematics. Furthermore, math
anxiety can cause cognitive interference. This means that feelings of worry and
other intrusive thoughts caused by math anxiety hinder the working memory of
students. Finally, Namkung et al. (2019) write, “According to the reciprocal
theory, past failure and negative experiences in mathematics performance may lead
to math anxiety, which subsequently leads to poorer mathematics performance,
and vice versa” (Namkung et al., 2019, p. 462). In this theory, a student's
experience and potential failures in math can lead to math anxiety, which in
turn can lead to poorer mathematical performance.
Underlying Causes of Math Anxiety
A question that guided my research was what are the causes
of math anxiety. The students that I work with are general education students
who are only ten and eleven years old but have somehow already acquired
significant negative feelings about math. According to Ramirez et al. (2018),
math anxiety is a complex trait to manipulate, so it can be difficult to pinpoint.
Currently, theories designed to explain the development of math anxiety falls
broadly into one of three categories: poor math skills, genetic
predispositions, or socio-environmental factors. As cited by Ramirez et al.
(2018), in a study completed in 2004 by Ma and Xu, researchers found that
higher math anxiety in previous years predicted lower math achievement in later
years. Additionally, lower math achievement in previous years predicted higher
math anxiety in the following years.
This result falls into the category of poor math skills
leading to math anxiety. (Ramirez et al., 2018). Another factor that can affect
one's likelihood to develop math anxiety is genetics. In 2014, Wang published
an empirical research study that sought to answer the question of how genetics
contribute to math anxiety. The researchers looked at math anxiety by studying
a group of twin adolescent siblings. They found that genetic factors accounted
for roughly 40% of the variation in math anxiety (Ramirez et al., 2018).
Finally, socio-environmental can play a role in causing math anxiety as well.
One cause can be a teacher who experiences math anxiety themselves.
often get their first experiences with math from inside the classroom and this
can have a negative effect if their teacher is not confident in math. Ramirez
et al., (2018) write, “A common theme across studies is that teachers’ math
anxiety contributes to children’s math anxiety through their use of particular
pedagogical practices (Allen, 2001; Chapline, 1980; Chavez & Widmer, 1982;
Markovits, 2011), such as overemphasizing rote learning instead of more
conceptual activities (Trujillo & Hadfield, 1999; Vinson, 2001) or
presenting lessons in a more dogmatic manner (Ball, 1990)” (Ramirez et al.,
2018, p. 150). This finding both shocked and resonated with me greatly. As
educators, our feelings and anxiousness about math could lead to students
experiencing math anxiety.
Negative Impacts of Math Anxiety
Several studies have shown that math anxiety affects
students' math performance. However, a bulk of these studies have focused on
middle grades students and above. A study completed by Szczygieł (2020) aimed
to provide additional data on the nature of math anxiety in elementary-aged
students. Specifically, the study examined whether or not math anxiety was related
to math achievement in Polish first through third graders. Szczygieł’s (2020)
research results confirmed that math anxiety is negatively related to math
achievement in children from first to third grade.
Another study completed by
Tomasetto and colleagues (2021) aimed to investigate whether or not math
anxiety affected students' ability to encode new math knowledge. Their study
consisted of presenting 6-year-old children with two contents that had not yet
been covered in the curriculum before the study. They found that math anxiety
was negatively related to the initial level of knowledge in the case of three
out of four math contents. Additionally, anxiety was also negatively related to
the rate of learning in two out of four tasks. This evidence hints that math
anxiety may reduce the encoding of new math knowledge in memory of very young
children which could potentially lead to gaps in math proficiency for children
with math anxiety from the very beginning of their formal education (Tomasetto
et al., 2021).
Another impact of math anxiety on students is that it can affect
their career choice later on in life. Barroso et al., (2021) argued that high
levels of math anxiety, as well as low math achievement and beliefs about math
ability early in early childhood, significantly relate to avoidance of later
educational interactions with math. One study found that students who had low
or decreasing math anxiety from middle school through high school were more
likely to choose STEM majors than students who had consistently high math
anxiety (Barroso et al., 2021, p. 135). Furthermore, math anxiety can affect
students’ working memory. Dowker et al. (2016) believed that math anxiety might
also influence students’ math performance by overloading their working memory.
Dowker et al. (2016) write, “Anxious people are likely to
have intrusive thoughts about how badly they are doing, which may distract
attention from the task or problem at hand and overload working memory
resources” (Dowker et al., 2016, p. 4). As cited by Dowker et al. (2016), a study
conducted in 2001 by Ashcraft and Kirk found that people with higher math
anxiety demonstrated smaller working memory spans than people with less math
anxiety, especially in tasks that required calculation. In this particular
study, people with math anxiety were much slower and made more errors than
others in tasks where they had to do mental addition at the same time as
keeping numbers in memory. (Dowker et al., 2016).
As shown by the research above, math anxiety in elementary-aged
students can have a significant negative impact. After learning about this, I
was personally invested in investigating interventions that were proven to be
effective for anxiety. I specifically was looking for interventions that would
benefit elementary-aged students and could be used in the general education
During my research, I noticed that several interventions were
centered around mindfulness techniques. LaGue et al. (2019) define this as,
“Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is a method involving a decentering of
one’s self to observe and evaluate cognitions, emotions, and physical
sensations through a nonjudgmental lens in which events are described, rather
than changed” (LaGue et al., 2019, p. 143). LaGue and colleagues conducted a study
to explore whether mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) could be expanded
to the treatment of math anxiety. In their study, three high school students
who were assessed with high levels of math anxiety met individually twice a
week for six weeks with the school counselor. The school counselor used a
manualized MBCT treatment for anxiety as the intervention. Activities in this
intervention included sensory-based practices, seated breath meditations,
mindful movement activities, body scans, visualization practices, and drawing
or writing. The results of the study showed a decrease in math anxiety for all
three participants that were included in the study. (LaGue et al., 2019). This
study provided evidence that mindfulness-based cognitive practices could be
used to assist with lessening students’ math anxiety.
Knowing this, I began to
look for interventions that would be easily used in the general education
elementary classroom. A brief, easy-to-implement intervention is mindfulness
art-making. Carsley & Heath (2019) write, “Mindful art-making is
hypothesized to combine the creative manipulation of materials found in art-making
(e.g., Abbott, Shanahan, & Neufeld, 2013) with the benefits of mindfulness
meditation (Curry & Kasser, 2005)” (Carsley & Heath, 2019, p. 144). In
their study, they compared the effectiveness of coloring mandalas versus a free
draw activity in the reduction of test anxiety in elementary-aged students.
Their findings showed that students in both the mindfulness (mandala coloring)
and free draw coloring group reported reductions in test anxiety. (Carsley
& Heath, 2019). So, it can be concluded that mindfulness coloring
activities, like coloring mandalas, can help reduce test anxiety when used
before a test.
Another intervention that came up in my research was the use
of mindfulness-based yoga. Stapp and Lambert (2020) recently conducted a study
to measure the effectiveness of mindfulness-based yoga techniques on fifth-grade
students' perceived anxiety and stress. In their study, students participated
in a guided breathing exercise and basic yoga poses (downward dog, butterfly
pose, and tree pose) for five minutes at the beginning of each class period.
Their study concluded that in all three classes in which the mindfulness-based
yoga intervention was used, there were decreased levels of perceived stress.
However, their study found that males in the remedial class benefited the most
with an average decrease of 16.67% in perceived anxiety levels and an average
decrease of 31.58% in perceived stress levels. (Stapp & Lambert, 2020). As
a result, mindfulness-based yoga techniques can be used as an intervention for
test anxiety in elementary-aged students.
What extent do teachers play in students’ math anxiety? This
is an area that I would love to see more research on. It would be interesting
to see how a teacher’s attitude and self-efficacy regarding math related to
their students' perceived math anxiety. Furthermore, are a teacher’s feelings
toward math more critical in early elementary as students are presumably more impressionable?
All around, the research that I discovered assured me that
math anxiety is a significant issue that needs to be addressed in the
classroom. Through my research, I discovered that math anxiety not only affects
older students but elementary-aged students as well. In the context of elementary-aged
students, math anxiety has significant negative impacts related to mathematical
performance, working memory, and the ability to learn new math content that can
lead to cognitive gaps in subsequent grades. However, mindfulness-based
interventions have been proven to be effective with students with math anxiety.
Such interventions include mindfulness coloring and yoga. Both of these
interventions are easily replicated in the elementary classroom yet can have
significant reductions in anxiety and stress among students.
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MATH ANXIETY EFFECTS ON ELEMENTARY AGED STUDENTS 11
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