When the Math Doesn’t Add Up: Math Anxiety and Learning Disabilities

Parents: Does your child struggle with math?  Completely shut down and become paralyzed when working on math homework?  Do they tell you that their mind goes blank and that they cannot remember anything? Teachers: Do you have a student that avoids math class and tends to flee by repeatedly asking to get a drink of water, or to go to the bathroom during that time?  ImageDoes your student exhibit helplessness and disorganization while math problem solving?  All of these behaviours are typical of math anxiety. Mark H. Ashcraft, Ph.D. defines math anxiety as “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance”.  Some students that suffer from math anxiety may also have Dyscalculia.  Dyscalculia is defined by LD.org as: “a term used to describe a specific learning disability in mathematics. Individuals with dyscalculia have significant problems with numbers: learning about them and understanding how they work”.

Some common signs of Dyscalculia include:

  1. Understanding the one-to-one correspondence between number symbols and objects (4 cookies, 4 cars)
  2. Counting and calculating rapidly
  3. Learning/memorizing basic math facts (addition, subtraction)
  4. Learning counting strategies (such as by 2, by 10, by 100, etc.)
  5. Learning multiplication tables, formulas, and rules
  6. Making comparisons such as more than/less than
  7. Telling time
  8. Understanding spatial directions (such as left and right)
A more comprehensive list can be found on the NCLD.org website: Click here

Individuals that have math anxiety may not necessarily have Dyscalculia, however, individuals with Dyscalculia usually tend to have some form of math anxiety.  Two researchers Michael Eysenck and Manuel Calvo found that “the intrusive thoughts and worry characteristics of high anxiety are thought to compete with ongoing cognitive tasks for the limited processing resources for working memory.

ImageWhat this means is that students with math anxiety have negative thoughts and anxieties competing with working memory that is needed for solving mathematical problems.   If a student already suffers from poor working memory (which many students with learning disabilities do) being successful in math poses a challenge.  Interestingly, this study showed that students with severe learning disabilities suffered from poor working memory and that poor working memory contributed to a slow acquisition of mathematical skills even when the student had high intelligence.

 What can help my child/student with math anxiety?

ImageOne of the most beneficial things a parent or a teacher can do for a student with math anxiety is to reassure them they have do the ability to do math.  I have heard students say that they don’t have a math brain or that they are terrible at math!  This bias towards math ability contributes directly to math anxiety.  There is a wonderful book written by John Mighton called “The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child”.  In his book, John explains that all of us have a natural ability to do math.  Somewhere along the way in school, that ability gets distorted into an inability that can lead to math anxiety.  The philosophy behind The Myth of Ability is that when mathematical tasks are broken down and concepts described clearly, all students regardless of skill can understand them.  John is also the founder of JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies) program that we are currently using in our ABC123 Tutoring Program with great success.


Initially, JUMP was started as a tutoring program but has since then been implemented as a main teaching tool in hundreds of Canadian schools.  This program has helped many students to overcome their fear of math and thus improve their math ability.   I have seen improvements in my student’s math ability and more importantly improvements in their confidence and their perceptions of their own math ability.   Concepts are easily broken down in ways that students understand them.  With this understanding comes the confidence many students lack.  The books are easy to follow and align with Ontario’s math curriculum.  I have been using the program with my own son for the last two years with great success.   Using the teacher guides has enhanced my teaching of math as well.

The struggle that some students face in mathematics may be attributed to a combination of issues or one specific underlying concern.  What is important to understand is that math anxiety can have a negative affect on learning mathematics.  Helping students overcome their fears and anxiety is the first step to helping them be successful.  Celebrate the successes, no matter how small.  Each positive step will build confidence in your student and help them face math with a more positive outlook.  Breaking down math problems into easy to understand steps and using concrete tools such as manipulatives and pictures can help a student have a better understanding of mathematical concepts.  We are all capable of achieving success in math and as parents and educators we can help build that confidence in our kids!


4 thoughts on “When the Math Doesn’t Add Up: Math Anxiety and Learning Disabilities

  1. Thanks for sharing!!

  2. I am quite interested in the area of anxiety being ignored as an LD, and effectively dismissed as a psychological issue that must be dealt with in cognitive therapy and not as a school based accommodation. We have run up against this bias, and lack of understanding at both the secondary school level and, most recently, at the University level. Currently, we are taking a major University to task. I have been recently taken up the expression of my concern with accommodation “phobia” in a blog that you may enjoy reading as I address the issue as BOTH a teaching based problem and as a human rights issue. If interested, please see:


    …… and then let’s talk.

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