Maths anxiety – building up resilience in learners to overcome their fears

Being anxious about maths is nothing new, but there are strategies to help FE students face it head-on, deal with struggles and setbacks, and grow more confident at this vital subject, says Sue Johnston-Wilder.

Working with FE colleges, we seek to address maths anxiety in learners by building mathematical resilience. A resilient learner understands that learning mathematics may involve struggle, but knows that, with hard work, curiosity and persistence, learning will grow, bringing satisfaction and pleasure from a challenge met and overcome (Lee & Johnston-Wilder 2013). Being mathematically resilient includes learning to keep safe from psychological threats to mathematical wellbeing; resilient learners overcome setbacks that are part of learning mathematics. We take maths anxiety to be a

symptom of historic psychological injury, real or vicarious, chronic or acute, in a mathematical context. Maths anxiety is associated with maladaptive behaviours, such as avoidance, helplessness and frustration. Maths anxiety “interfere[s] with the manipulation of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations” (Richardson and Suinn, 1972, p.551). Being resilient requires: a growth mindset (Dweck 2000); experiencing personal value in mathematics (Nardi and Steward 2003); understanding of how to struggle with mathematics challenges (Bandura 1997, Mason, 1999); awareness of the support available from the wider community – peers, other adults, ICT, internet – combined with personal coping strategies for managing emotions and self-safeguarding.


• Cousins, Sarah B., Brindley, Janine, Baker, Janet, Johnston-Wilder, Sue. (2019). Stories of mathematical resilience: how some adult learners overcame affective barriers. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 21 (1), pp. 46-70.


• Johnston-Wilder, Sue, Goodall, Janet and Almehrz, Hani. (2018). Overcoming statistical helplessness and developing statistical resilience in learners: an illustrative, collaborative, phenomenological study. Creative education, 9 (7). pp. 1105-1122.

• Johnston-Wilder, Sue, Pardoe, Steve, Marsh, J., Almehrz, Hani, Evans, Bernadette, Richards, S. 2017. Developing teaching for mathematical resilience in further education: development and evaluation of a 4-day course. 10th annual International Conference of Education,

Figure 1 COMFORT

becomes impaired; if a learner is unable to communicate distress, a teacher or coach may be unaware that the learner is missing out. Communication of distress is important so that the learner can be helped to recover learning capacity. The ‘growth zone’ is the in-between



A key tool for developing mathematical resilience is the growth zone model (GZM); this is effectively the emotional equivalent of Vygotsky’s ZPD (Figure 1). The GZM provides language for learners to express and discuss feelings and emotions, to develop strategies to manage initial reactions to mathematics, and to support others to do so. The ‘comfort zone’ encompasses

everything the learner can already do independently. Working within this zone builds self-confidence, provides opportunities to practise and develop automaticity, and gives reassurance. The ‘red zone’ is where what is being

asked of the learner is perceived as beyond reach, even with support, which results in perceived threat; the brain begins ‘fight or flight’ routines, leaving the learner feeling stupid. Capacity to listen

zone that learners often describe as ‘too narrow’, where they experience challenge rather than threat. They need to experience safely making mistakes, going down dead ends, experiencing some failure, requiring and receiving support, and getting stuck. This zone may trigger excitement or nervousness in learners. When the learning environment is one of trust, courage, articulation, collaboration, persistence and perseverance, more students will enter, and choose to stay in their growth zone. The GZM is accessible. Any adult,

‘mathematical’ or not, can learn to coach a maths learner by understanding the potential emotions experienced in the zones and by encouraging explicitly a culture of ‘can do’ mathematics and development of mathematical resilience. Coaches encourage learners to value challenges and help them to manage the emotions involved, encouraging increasing independence and agency. Coaches are not required to know maths but rather develop learners’ abilities to explore problems, and recognise options and actions that might lead to an answer. They focus on learners’ wellbeing to ensure maths helplessness and anxiety are addressed explicitly and safely.

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