Children as young as six feel fear, rage and despairas a result of "mathematics anxiety", a conditionwhich can cause physical symptoms and behaviourproblems in class, according to a study.
Pupils in both primary and secondary school can findthemselves locked in a cycle of despair, sufferingfrom anxiety which harms their mathsperformance, which in turn leads to increased anxiety.
Researchers say maths anxiety should be treated as a "real concern" because of the damage itdoes to a child's learning. They also point out it may be contributing to a growing maths crisisin the UK, where the level of adult numeracy is relatively low and getting worse.
According to the Nuffield Foundation report, Understanding Mathematics Anxiety, theproportion of adults with functional maths skills equivalent to a GCSE grade C has fallenfrom 26% in 2003 to 22% in 2011. In contrast, functional literacy skills are steadilyincreasing, with 57% of working-age adults gaining the equivalent level.
Researchers from the faculty of education and the centre for neuroscience in education atCambridge University worked with 2,700 primary and secondary students in the UK and Italy – including detailed one-to-one interviews – to explore maths anxiety and its causes.
The children they interviewed provided graphic descriptions of their fears about maths. "I feltvery unwell and I was really scared," said one primary school student, describing his reactionduring a lesson about equivalent fractions. "Because my table's in the corner I kind of tried notto be in the lesson."
The co-author Dr Ros McLellan, who led the interview research, said: "Maths anxiety is verymuch an emotional reaction. Younger kids won't want to go to school when they have mathsclasses; they get tearful and upset.
"We had some young people saying: 'I get so frustrated, I end up hitting the desk,' and thenthey get themselves into bother. If we know what is at the bottom of the problem rather thanaddressing the symptoms we can address the root cause."
Researchers found there was a general sense that maths was hard compared with othersubjects, which led to a loss of confidence, yet the study points out that most children withhigh levels of maths anxiety are normal to high achievers in the subject.
Key triggers for anxiety included poor marks, test pressures, teasing by fellow pupils and aconfusing mix of teaching methods. National Sats tests taken in the final year of primaryschool were a cause of anxiety for some, while the transition to secondary school waschallenging for others.
The children's emotional reactions included feelings of apprehension, tension, frustrationor fear, while physical symptoms included butterflies, a racing heart or struggling to catchbreath.
"The experiences of maths anxiety are multifaceted, with students expressing emotions fromrage to despair," the report says. "Students often reported overwhelming negativeemotions which in some cases led them to act out in class and be removed from the classroom, or to become tearful. Others reported that they dreaded their mathematics lessons or thatphysical symptoms had an impact on their ability to flourish."
It warns teachers and parents that their own anxieties about maths might have a negativeinfluence and so urges them to tackle these first. It also urges policymakers to be consciousthat emotional blocks can affect learning potential.