Developmental Implications of Math Anxiety

As a math facilitator, I am often asked by educators often how they can support students with a diverse range of developmental needs. A problem of practice that I think we need to be aware of, is that a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching math, including instructional strategies, assessment and feedback processes can negatively impact learning and development of some students. While research has made great advances in instruction and assessment for students with diverse needs, I think we need to look deeper. Particularly when it comes to anxiety, and more specifically math anxiety. I don’t believe that anxiety is the same for everyone, so why would math anxiety be any different?

A lot of research exists into math anxiety already, especially when it comes to the cognitive impacts of math anxiety – for instance, we know that anxiety takes up valuable brain resources necessary for understanding the math. We also know that timed tests and drill and kill practices absolutely promote math anxiety. Jo Boaler has been part of extensive research that delves into the negative consequences of math anxiety, and also what educators can do differently in the classroom to ensure that we are not exacerbating it. Indeed, changing the way that we teach and view math goes a long way to preventing additional math anxiety.

However, what about student psychological development in math, and how anxiety mediates the perceptions of the instruction, assessment and feedback in math?

How do we scaffold the feedback and assessment in ways that impacts student learning in math?

The instruction, assessment and feedback strategies that might work for dealing with math anxiety in one child, may need to be very different than the anxiety that is presenting in another child.

How does math develop when students are developing along different trajectories of anxiety?

What does math anxiety look like in different children? How does instruction and assessment interact with a myriad of variables? What are the personal variables that each child is coming to the classroom with? Looking closer at the impact of instruction, assessment and feedback on the students, and how they perceive the strategies is important. This is in contrast to just looking at how to change math instruction so that students can cognitively improve, and looking toward developmental changes in math anxiety. The variables that research can look deeper into include socioeconomic status, gender, race/ethnicity, family dynamics, psychopathology, neurological differences and more.

I think that this could have very big implications for how we teach and facilitate math learning for elementary school students.

So I am left with questions like, do all children with math anxiety develop along the same developmental trajectories of learning? What about the child who has anxiety but still performs well, versus the child who also has dyscalculia? What if the anxiety is influenced by a separate mental health issue, a neurological difficulty, self-esteem issue, motivation issue? What if it is caused by a trigger in the surrounding environment? As such, are there different trajectories of instruction, assessment and feedback that we should be following?

Do we treat the underlying issues separately, and address math anxiety as a one-size fits all instructional approach? Or do we look at different developmental trajectories, differentiated instruction and assessment practices?

It sounds like common sense, but there appears to be little research exists that looks at how the students develop in math through their anxiety, and how instruction, assessment and feedback impacts this.

I think that as I delve into this topic more and begin to understand what supports are necessary for children who are experiencing math anxiety, a greater realm of possibilities will emerge.

I look forward to hearing thoughts,

Deb McCallum







2 responses to “Developmental Implications of Math Anxiety”

  1. Billy Avatar

    As a math teacher, math anxiety has been a hot topic. Not being able to pinpoint a cause, I normally have my students inform me about their issues like: going blank, heart rate or sweating. I have them take a walk and get some fresh air. Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Math anxiety is another factor that can negatively diminish the ability to choose an appropriate strategy. We all either know first hand, and / or have witnessed the effects of anxiety in our students when it comes to math. I know that when I feel anxious, I become concerned about how others are evaluating my choices. Other intrusive thoughts may accompany anxiety, and this greatly reduces working memory for students. They may also feel like they have to choose the same strategy as their friends – or choose the one that their teacher is looking for. These types of intrusive thoughts greatly reduce the ability for a student to process the math problem at hand and make the best choices. […]


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