The Myth of “I’m Bad At Math!” – Math Anxiety in Elementary Students

Why do your students say that they are bad at math? The short answer: they're scared.

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overcoming math anxiety feelings in the myth of i'm bad at avoidance in elementary students

Students' True Feelings in Math Class

“But I’m bad at math!” We’ve all heard someone say this at least once in our lives, when they were asked to solve a numerical problem. Though, it is especially disheartening to hear from a young child. A lot of adults and children use this phrase to cover their true feelings towards math – uneasiness and worry.

Math avoidance and math anxiety are noticed in students as young as elementary age. We’re debunking the myth of “I’m bad at math” and highlighting ways to help elementary students overcome math anxiety.

What is Math Anxiety?

If a person is terrified of public speaking, can they ever expect to be good at it? Of course – if they push through the fear and practice, they can become excellent public speakers. However, it’s unlikely that this person will be happily volunteering to speak in front of crowds for some time.

“It is human nature for people to spend more time doing the things they enjoy. People embrace things that they are good at,” says Bradley Piper, a researcher at the University of Nebraska. “Likewise, people avoid those things that cause them angst. If students begin to feel they do not understand mathematics, they will begin to lose confidence and avoid math whenever and however.”

These feelings of stress and uncertainty can begin in a student’s first math class. If they do not understand the way math is taught, it causes them to do poorly and avoid math altogether. This math avoidance can limit student confidence and competence. Their phobia gets renamed as “not being good at math” and thus, the myth of “I’m bad at math” becomes a strongly-held belief.

Why Do Elementary Students Have Math Anxiety?

Edutopia reported that almost half of elementary school students experience math anxiety, with children as young as kindergarten feeling apprehensive. Why are these negative feelings felt towards math as a subject specifically and why are they felt so early in students’ academic careers?

No Positive Associations With Math

Before children start school, many parents and guardians read books with them for enjoyment. Going to the library can be a fun activity for young children. This creates positive associations with reading before it becomes a subject in school. However, doing math “for fun” at home is pretty rare.

“When children encounter math at school, the concepts are often entirely new, and the only preparation they will have received are the messages they might have picked up from others, like the idea that math is really hard, or girls aren’t good at math,” the Child Mind Institute observes.

Children develop the belief that math is difficult and boring before they even enter the classroom, which leads to math avoidance early.

Fear of Failure Causes Math Avoidance

Math appears as a very black and white subject for kids – there’s only one correct answer. You’re either right or you’re wrong. This makes math in particular very intimidating, especially for students who already fear failure.

Math anxiety in elementary students looks similar to test anxiety. Students with test anxiety are overly concerned with the the possibility of failure. This worry creates a lack of confidence and avoidance of the subject in general. According to a 2012 research article, for many students with math anxiety, “even the prospect of doing math…elicits a negative emotional response.” Put simply, if doing math doesn’t make a child feel good, they’re not going to want to do it. 

Time Pressures

Imagine that you were asked to put together a 1,000 piece puzzle. That’s a big task, but surely as you assemble more and more of the pieces over time, the puzzle will come together. Now imagine that you have a one-hour time limit to complete the puzzle. How will finishing be possible?! You would be feeling incredibly stressed and rushed. This is how many students feel when they are given timed math assignments.

Speed plays a big part in how competent students perceive themselves in math. Frankly, there are no timed quizzes in history or science. Working slower than peers causes math anxiety in elementary students.

“When people say they aren’t good at math, often they mean they aren’t fast at math,” says Ann Dowker, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Oxford.

Jumping to Conclusions

Many people jump to conclusions, but children tend to jump to conclusions much faster. In fact, many children quickly jump to conclusions when negative situations occur. This is because a child’s ability to self-regulate isn’t very strong at a young age. So if a young student is struggling solving math problems, they can quickly jump to the conclusion that they are bad at math.

Signs of Math Anxiety in Elementary Students

According to Edutopia, some of the signs of math anxiety in elementary students are:
  • Math avoidance
  • Sadness or anger while problem solving
  • Negative self-talk including exaggerated statements such as “I’ll never be able to do this”
  • Low achievement

A Self-Perpetuating Cycle

Low achievement is both a sign and a consequence of math anxiety. Unfortunately, math anxiety can be a self-perpetuating cycle. When a student develops math avoidance, they are less likely to practice their math skills. This decline in skills leads to poor performance in math class. Then, students use their grades as “proof” that they are bad at math. This belief then further fuels self-doubts and math avoidance. The cycle continues and becomes more difficult to break.

Furthermore, anxiety makes it more difficult to learn. Math is more reliant on working memory than other subjects, meaning that it can be challenging to focus to begin with. Anxiety negatively affects a student’s ability to pay attention, retain information, and solve problems clearly. It can be very hard to be successful in class without overcoming math anxiety.

How to Help Students With Math Anxiety

Teachers can help students overcome math anxiety using social and emotional learning strategies, as well as multi-sensory teaching approaches. Changing the way math is taught will help students succeed and stop believing the myth of “I’m bad at math”.

Ways to Reduce Math Anxiety

  • Help students take the focus away from themselves. For instance, if your students say, “I am bad at math,” when working on a specific problem, encourage them to say “this problem is challenging” instead.
  • Encourage a growth mindset. Again, avoid phrases like “I am bad at math” which can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Change the narrative and encourage phrases like “I can do this” and “I can learn new things”. When students believe they can be good at something, they are more likely to be successful.
  • Since many young children are kinesthetic and/or visual learners, incorporating movement-based learning into lessons can help students jumpstart their math confidence and abilities. When the information is presented in a way that they can understand, anxious students are more likely to feel ready to tackle assignments.
  • Develop multi-sensory teaching strategies that engage anxious students and all learning types (kinesthetic, visual, auditory). If the lessons are engaging and fun, students are less likely to avoid math!

Learning Is Easier When It's Fun

Math & Movement keeps students excited about learning. Incorporating fun, movement-based activities can increase student achievement and decrease math avoidance.

Our products make multi-sensory, play-based learning activities possible in any classroom. Using colorful floor mats, banners, and stickers, students can learn while moving their bodies! The bright designs, large numbers, and game-like activities make learning math effective and enjoyable for children, thus decreasing frustration levels. Adding Math & Movement to your existing curriculum allows students to physically hop, walk, crawl, dance, or touch the concepts as they learn, which uses more learning modalities (visual, auditory, motor, and kinesthetic) when practicing.

Additionally, Math & Movement offers a variety of social emotional learning (SEL) products aimed at boosting young students’ confidence. Adding positive affirmations into your students’ daily routine helps students adopt a confident approach to learning. There is a way to shift the paradigm and start hearing students say they are good at math!

Math & Movement is proven to impact student learning and positively change students’ feelings towards math! Check out our student data. Help your students overcome math anxiety and debunk the myth of “I’m bad at math” today!

overcoming math anxiety feelings in the myth of i'm bad at avoidance in elementary students

References and More Reading

Crose, Michael. “Teach Kids Not To Jump To Conclusions.” Loqqat, Qaptive Technologies Pvt. Ltd, 24 Sept. 2018,


D’Orio, Wayne. “Tackling Math Anxiety.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 12 May 2022,


Ehmke, Rachel. “How to Help Kids With Math Anxiety.” Child Mind Institute, Child Mind Institute, 24 Jan. 2023,


Ehmke, Rachel. “Tips for Beating Test Anxiety.” Child Mind Institute, Child Mind Institute, 31 Aug. 2022,


Picha, Gina. “Recognizing and Alleviating Math Anxiety.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 17 May 2018,,%2C%20low%20achievement%2C%20and%20fear.

Piper, Bradley D., “Attitudes, Confidence, and Achievement of High-Ability Fifth Grade Math Students” (2008). Summative projects for MA Degree, 29.


Raising Children Network. “Self-Regulation in Children and Teenagers.” Raising Children Network, Raising Children Network (Australia) Limited., 20 May 2021,


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