InTuition taster: Combatting anxiety: three tools for all maths teachers and learners

When learners tie themselves into knots about doing maths, it can be so debilitating. Teachers can feel powerless too. But helpful techniques are at hand, write Sue Johnston-Wilder and Janet Kilpatrick Baker.

Janet KbMaths anxiety is disabling and prevalent, affecting roughly 30 per cent of 15-year-olds. If not addressed, it interferes with learning maths. Learners often feel helpless, or defiant. Maths anxiety is a psychological injury from which learners can be emancipated if we know how. In the process, behaviour often improves.

For some learners, a maths classroom is a very unsafe place, to be avoided if possible. Maths anxiety is on a spectrum from mild tension to a strong fear.

High maths anxiety causes learners to feel ‘pain’ when thinking about the subject. Sufferers report historic experiences of isolation, humiliation, being ignored, shouting, and unkind, negative or discouraging things being said. Such experiences lead to opting out, poor attendance, last-minute studying and poor performance.

We want to share three tools: the growth zone model (GZM); the hand model of the brain; and the relaxation response. They help teachers become more aware of maths anxiety, reduce its impact and build resilience. They enable learners to manage emotions in maths challenges.

The growth zone model

We often hear people talking about “moving outside the comfort zone”. But, for many maths learners, this means moving straight to the anxiety or panic zone. We can introduce an explicit in-between zone: the growth zone. The growth zone model enables learners to name and communicate their current feelings – a step towards managing them. They can be encouraged to use their own words to describe past feelings when faced with challenge and threat.

Working on familiar tasks in the comfort zone helps to build self-confidence and provides opportunities for developing automaticity. New learning happens in the growth zone (see link below for more).

In this zone it is important that learners need to feel safe when making mistakes or getting stuck and asking for support. They are encouraged to develop explicit strategies to deal with being stuck: underlining unfamiliar words, accessing resources online, talking with a peer, or preparing a question for the teacher.

By contrast, the anxiety zone is where the learner feels that what is being asked is not within their reach at the moment, even with support. Stress increases, cognition decreases, and little or no useful learning takes place. With an element of control (Bandura, 2007) to encourage self-safeguarding, learners in the growth zone can build confidence and develop their mathematical resilience.

Siegel’s hand model of the brain

Maths anxiety can be invisible; students may feel suddenly or increasingly stupid, angry, fearful or blank. The hand model helps explain, in an accessible way based in neuroscience, why anxiety may lead to such feelings, as emotion takes over and the thinking part of the brain goes ‘off-line’ (see link below for more on the model).

Benson’s Relaxation Response

The ‘relaxation response’ is a quick, effective way to switch off the brain’s anxiety response by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (one of two systems regulating the body’s unconscious activities, such as digestion).

The learner can trigger the release of chemicals and brain signals that slow muscles and organs down, increasing blood flow to the brain. For example, even in exams, learners can use longer out-breaths, such as 5/7 breathing, to trigger the relaxation response. In some cases, to switch off the anxiety response, a learner may need to leave the room with a ‘permission to have a break’ card, walk to a safe place or seek one-to-one support.


Faced with learners’ maths anxiety, and correlates such as learned helplessness or hostility, teachers tend to remove challenge, give the answer and avoid giving any tasks that lead to struggle. But, once they know and understand about maths anxiety and learners have learned how to communicate any perceived threat effectively, challenging tasks can be undertaken safely.


• Bandura, A. (2007) ‘Reflections on an agentic theory of human agency’. Tidsskrift for Norsk Psykologforening, 10, 995-1004.

Dowker et al (2016) ‘Mathematics Anxiety: What Have We Learned in 60 Years?’; available from

Siegel, D. Dr Daniel Siegel presenting a Hand Model of the Brain

• Benson, H. (2001). The Relaxation Response. HarperCollins

Marshall, E., Mann, V., Wilson, D., & Staddon, R. (2017). Learning and teaching toolkit: Maths anxiety.

• Lee C. and Johnston-Wilder, S. (2018) ‘Getting into and Staying in the Growth Zone’, NRICH; available from

Sue Johnston-Wilder is associate professor of mathematics education at the Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick. Janet Kilpatrick Baker is a post-graduate researcher at the University of Warwick.

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