Math Anxiety: Therapy Solutions

Years ago, I began to think of what I was doing as a form of therapy – working with children and adults that had significant anxiety from their past math experiences. The treatment was one-to-one math play and instruction. Playing side by side, talking, laughing, having fun together, making the complex simple. I scribbled a note on a piece of torn loose-leaf paper to remind myself to write about my experiences playing math with others and how it felt like a form of therapy and promptly tucked it in a box with my other math notes. I planned to write about math therapy one day, but like many of my ideas, it got lost in the wake of my busyness. I worked with an adult student a few years back, and he mentioned math therapy. His words reminded me of the words I scratched on the old piece of paper so long ago. I went to the box to find it. Though the notes overflowed the cardboard box, I eventually found it but did not write about it. I promised myself I would get to it. Here I am, years later, getting to it.

When I first thought of math play and one-to-one tutoring as therapy for math anxiety, I had not heard anything about it other than one student prescribed Mortensen Math training by her doctor as a therapy for her math anxiety. But now, I hear more and more people talk about math therapy and math anxiety.

What is math anxiety?
It is a feeling that interferes with the ability to do the math. It can affect people of all ages and at all levels of math. It can cause the person to react emotionally and physically. It can cause a freeze, fight, or flight response. It can cause the heart to race, the stomach to churn, the body to sweat, the head to spin. It can demotivate a person. It can lead to negative self-talk and low self-esteem. It can lead to math avoidance. It can cause low math performance. It can lead to the fear of failure. It can lead to negative behaviour. It can lead to big emotions – anger, tears, defiance. It can cause a student to panic or become distressed. It can make students think they can’t do math or are bad at math. It can lead to cognitive math deficiencies. It can lead to a lack of response to math problems. It can lead to a belief that one is too stupid to learn math.

What causes math anxiety?
It is impossible to say what triggers math anxiety. It can be as simple as getting an answer incorrect and being embarrassed. Perhaps it was not taught correctly, so you don’t understand it. Or maybe you think you are not good at math because your parents say they were not good at it. It could be you are not as quick at solving problems as your peers. Many things can cause math anxiety. The cause of math anxiety is individual to each person.

What is math therapy?
Math therapy is how we help students overcome math anxiety. It is one-to-one instruction that exposes students to math problems uniquely personalized to their abilities with real-time feedback. It helps students find ways to work through problems when they are stuck. It takes the fear out of math so that students become less fearful. It makes math fun again. Remedial teaching is math therapy. But don’t be fooled. Math therapy is not just for struggling students, as math anxiety can hit students at any level. Without help, some people will have math anxiety their entire lives. Individual math tutoring can help fix abnormal fear responses in the brain, reducing stress and enhancing performance. Exposing people to what they fear in a safe environment is exposure-based therapy. For example, students need to be repeatedly exposed to math in a secure environment when they fear math. Students regularly exposed to math play and one-to-one instruction have reduced levels of math-related anxiety. In addition, working without their peers present takes away the fear of making mistakes or keeping up with others.

How do we facilitate math therapy?
We do this through play, games, and using various math materials and resources. We do this by talking and working alongside each other. We do this by listening to the student. We do this by trusting our instincts. We do this by making mistakes and using those mistakes to propel us forward. We do this by being relaxed and using positive self-talk. We do this by modelling good math skills, and finally, by teaching students different strategies and approaches and allowing them to choose what works best.

What tools do you need to provide math therapy?
A desire to help others. Math training and education. A love of math. Hands-on math manipulatives, tools, and resources. Patience. A sense of humour. A playful spirit. A positive attitude. Compassion. The ability to connect with your students. Good communication skills – both listening and talking. The knowledge to understand and openness to take verbal and non-verbal cues from your students. The ability to assess students on the fly. The tools to track student progress. The patience and time for students to fail themselves to succeed. Flexible approach – if students aren’t learning how we teach them, we must teach them how they learn. Someone to debrief and talk with to help evaluate your work and provide new insights – the ability to learn from your students and others. The ability to bring maths to life – to make it enjoyable. The mantra – say it, build it, draw it, write it, and read it.

Can students overcome math anxiety?


  1. Wow! I couldn’t agree more!
    I have worked with 2 students to overcome math anxiety in just the ways you have discussed. My current student is beginning to enjoy numbers again and not dread math!
    Thank you for this reassuring article!😀

    1. What a wonderful gift to give your students Pam. It really warms my heart to hear. Thank you for sharing.

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