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How UK Programmes are tackling maths anxiety in young learners

What is maths anxiety and why does it matter?

Research just published by the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge highlights the grim experience of ‘mathematics anxiety’ among children in the UK (Carey et al, 2019). It’s there in early primary school, and it gets worse at secondary school. The researchers describe how it can affect children profoundly – emotionally (bursting into tears, feeling worried and tense), physically (butterflies and breathlessness) and behaviourally (being afraid to ask questions, misbehaving, dropping maths as soon as possible).

This matters massively – not only because maths is such an important part of learning, but also because any experience of anxiety about learning, especially for young children, is something we should really worry about. The authors rightly highlight that parents have a key role to play, and the Nuffield Foundation as the main funder of the research calls for more school and home-based interventions to prevent maths anxiety developing in the first place.

Maths anxiety is something we see all the time in our work with families in schools in the UK. Parents tell us they want to do more to help, but their own anxiety about maths gets in the way, and there’s a common view that maths is ‘done differently’ from when they learnt it. They can also find it frustrating when children can’t get the basics, or get something one day and not the next. Parents can over-estimate children’s numeracy when they hear them counting quite high, not realising that this is oral rather than practical counting. Teachers also tell us that parents really struggle with supporting children in this area, and they themselves find it hard to know how to help.

Engaging parent’s empathy with children’s learning through Save the Children’s Families Connect programme

That’s why we knew we had to include a numeracy module when we developed Families Connect, a programme we deliver in schools across the UK to help parents support their children’s learning at home. Our approach to numeracy has a big focus on engaging parents’ empathy with children’s learning, with lots of work on listening and giving praise. We do a silly exercise using letters to count instead of numbers to help parents connect with what it’s like not to have the basics, and we ‘out’ how confusing number language is in English: (We don’t exactly make it easy by saying four-teen, but not three-teen or five-teen!) We use games to help parents to make early maths fun, and boxes filled with touchy-feely objects to encourage counting, grouping and sorting. There’s a strong emphasis on talking about numbers – noticing figures and seeing opportunities to count wherever families are.

Even though we make it fun, we don’t start with numeracy. We first help parents to attune to their children’s social and emotional experiences as learners and then introduce play-based ways of supporting literacy and language development before grappling with maths – and even then, that’s when we see some families fall away.

The impact and future of the Families Connect programme on improving young children’s numeracy learning  

We’re seeing promising results. Our evaluation found significant differences in teacher reports of children’s maths ability and overall learning behaviour, and the vast majority of parents reported changes in what they do with children at home. We’re now running a Randomised Controlled Trail (RCT) with NfER and Queen’s University Belfast, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, from which we’ll have results in 2020.  In response to requests from schools, we’re also developing the programme and resources to be appropriate for children as young as 3 in maintained nurseries, so that children can benefit from better support from parents and at home earlier.

It’s a huge pleasure to see parents and children having fun with numbers. And above all it’s a real privilege to work with parents who have the courage to overcome their own anxieties so that they can give their children what all parents want to give – the very best start in life.

Blog written by Jane Lewis and Jennifer Magness

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