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21 May 2021
By Andrew Woods

Mathematical Safeguarding

Safeguarding is arguably the most important role a teacher has. The welfare of children and how it intertwines with learning is paramount, if children are going to be as successful in learning then first and foremost, they must feel safe.

Feeling safe has multiple levels. A student may feel safe physically and emotionally but what about intellectually? What about feeling safe with maths?

What contributes to a feeling of being safe is complex. Without delving into others’ specialisms too much, a helpful way to consider this is from the world of Attachment Theory. Attachment Theory describes how relationships have been formed with significant caregivers. With the success of how the cycles of needs which are being communicated are met impacts on future relationships and how threats are perceived.

Beware the chimp brain

When we perceive threats, this greatly impedes our brain’s ability to function. Professor Steve Peters in his book ‘The Chimp Paradox’ describes three brains. The chimp brain, who if let loose would unleash the irrational, emotional side and would dominate behaviour. The Computer brain were many of the automated functions are managed and the human brain. It is the human brain that does the thinking, analysing, working with facts, and making deductions using logical thinking. When we do not feel safe, and we do not have coping strategies, then the chimp brain can take over preventing the human brain to work efficiently.  It is like learning with the handbrake on.

Human behaviour is heavily influenced by prior experiences. How we react to perceived threat is likely to inhabit our human brain. Mathematics is heavily reliant on the ability to analyse, work with facts, make deductions and logical thinking. So, it is no surprise that when students might have had negative prior experiences where they have felt threaten by maths, their chimp takes over.

Why is this a problem in learning maths?

Maths anxiety can be defined as “a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in […] ordinary life and academic situations” (Richardson and Suinn, 1972). Although prevalence is difficult to quantify, it is something that many teachers will notice in their students. Often it is displayed by an avoidance of mathematical activities, sometimes due to an overloading and disrupting of the working memory during mathematical tasks. Where what seems sensible is to switch off to keep the chimp in check.

Mathematics content is difficult, and the added addition that learning is an emotional experience can impact on student’s self-efficacy. Therefore, being mindful of emotion in the classroom and its affects on learning can be really helpful. Since maths is meant to be a little difficult and experiencing being stuck is a natural experience. If students don’t know this then they can feel alone in their struggle reinforcing negative feelings. Being explicit that maths can make you feel stuck is important as learners can readily translate their feeling about their success to the feelings about themself (Lee, 2009).

Maths anxiety impacts heavily on working memory. It’s well documented how important working memory is to learning. Teaching practice that supports an understanding that working memory is limited is often more effective. But if working memory is impacted further with internal conversations of “I can’t do this” or “I have always been bad at maths” then the hand brake is on and the car engine is off.

Relationship with attainment

Maths achievement and anxiety are negatively correlated; those with high levels of anxiety are often those with low maths achievement (Dowker, 2016). One possible reason for this is those who have higher levels of maths anxiety are more likely to avoid activities and situations that involve mathematics. Inevitably, this reduced practice is likely to reduce their fluency and their future mathematical learning (Ashcraft, 2002).

Studies also suggest that attitudes to mathematics tend to deteriorate with age too (Ma and Kishor, 1997). It may be possible that as students grow up, their avoidance strategies are often more effective too. Cycles of avoidance of maths perpetuates the problem meaning that proportions of older students grow in their unease with maths.

Successful learning

For maths anxiety the best antidote is achievement. Ensuring students feel successful with content in low stakes environments where ‘threats’ of failure are reduced can mitigate feelings of anxiety. Easier said than done. But assessing starting points regularly and being concise of using small steps in learning can support this. Also, for all to be successful then a ‘no opt out’ strategy that is skilful to ensure all students participant in learning and that students are unable to deploy avoidance tactics would be an attempt to break the cycle of any lack of practice or engagement. This would need to be done sensitively and appropriately for the needs of the students so as to not compound the problem.

The Growth Zone

Students need appropriate levels of challenge to learn. Too much time in the comfort zone and they likely to get bored or not learn anything. Too much in the red zone and they may feel overwhelmed by the uncertainty and unsafe allowing the chimp brain to take over [Figure 1].

To get into the growth zone some simple anxiety management approaches can be used to quieten the chimp brain such as breathing exercises, talking to someone or taking a step away. Demonstrating metacognitive approaches that help a students reflect back on their past successes can help ground the student. Both can go some ways to help the student take back control of the chimp, take the handbrake off and switch the engine back on. Without resetting the emotional state, it is highly unlikely any learning will be successful.

Ashcraft M. H., Moore A. W. (2009). Mathematics anxiety and the affective drop in performanceJ. Psychoeduc. Assess. 27, 197–205. 10.1177/0734282908330580

Dowker, A., Sarkar, A., & Looi, C. Y. (2016). Mathematics Anxiety: What Have We Learned in 60 Years?. Frontiers in psychology7, 508.

Richardson F. C., Suinn R. M. (1972). The Mathematics Anxiety Rating ScaleJ. Couns. Psychol. 19, 551–554. 10.1037/h0033456

Lee J. (2009). Universals and specifics of math self-concept, math self-efficacy, and math anxiety across 41 PISA 2003 participating countriesLearn. Individ. Dif. 19, 355–365.

Ma X., Kishor N. (1997). Assessing the relationship between attitude toward mathematics and achievement in mathematics: a meta-analysisJ. Res. Math. Educ. 28, 26–47. 10.2307/749662

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