Psychological Reasons Behind the Fear of math


18 November 2020

Reading time: 6 minutes

Here at Cuemath, we have with us Dr. Nitya Sriram, an educational psychologist. She holds degrees in Math and Child Psychology, which gives her a unique perspective into the reasons why Math has a perception of being extremely difficult and can often manifest itself into fear of the subject quite early on among children.

In the course of this blog, we have a transcribed interview with Dr. Nitya Sriram through which one can understand not only the existence of this fear of math and math anxiety but also the psychological reasons behind such a fear.


Sriram: Good Morning, Shall we start with a brief introduction about yourself?


Nithya: I’m Nithya Sriram, an educational psychologist. My chosen field of work has been educational learning and memory part of it. Science has been my domain of interest, as I am also an Applied Microbiologist. I chose to be a Cuemath expert because my passion was to teach math to kids.


Sriram: So it's a very interesting combination that you've chosen psychology and maths.
You'll have a better perspective as to why students have this fear towards mathematics. Why do you think that happens? 


Nithya: Mostly, the kids facing math anxiety (or in a broader perspective as math phobia), has more to do with achieving some results in the field of math rather than the subject itself. 90 percent of the time it has to do with that. Arithmophobia is a fear of numbers - it comes under the anxiety disorder, a different psychological disorder.

Let's say all of us would have loved cycling, swimming. When I was around eight years old, my cousin pushed me into a river, and due to this incident, I developed hydrophobia. Of course, after growing up being a logical thinker,  I was able to overcome some part of it and learned how to float and swim to save myself.
If given a choice between swimming, cycling, or walking as an activity, then obviously I would only choose either cycling or walking. So it is understood that the phobia is still there.

The same happens with kids in their formative years. 

  • If they have faced some learning gaps for multiple issues or if they have faced continuous failures while approaching to win a subject, these are the fears that were left unanswered in their formative years. So over a while, this forms a perception like "I'm not good at this subject", "I cannot do."
  • One of the major reasons is mothers keep saying, “I'm not good at math, so my kids are also not good at math.” Knowing the age of multiple intelligences, it is a myth and not a fact
  • The most important and overlooked reason being in their formative years is that the child is not introduced to or taught about the subject as it has to be. This lack of learning develops math phobia and math anxiety. 

Sriram: How is math anxiety different from math phobia/Arithmophobia?


Nithya: Let me put this on a positive note. Math anxiety can be overcome at any age, like how I overcame my hydrophobia at the age of 32. Arithmophobia is a multiple disorder, where the idea of numbers of quantification itself scares the person, then that's a psychological disorder that is developed for various other reasons.

important notes to remember
“Math anxiety can be overcome at any age.”

Sriram: How can students overcome the fear of math?


Nithya: Ok. How would you go about what the belief system is?

  • Foremost, the teacher or the parent has to work against the belief that “I am not good at the subject” or “Math is not my cup of tea." That belief system needs to be removed from the child's mind.
  • Math is more based on learning the concepts than teaching them the procedures. But sometimes, we do teach them the procedures as they have to face periodic and summative assessments.
  • As teachers and parents, we need to draw the road map for them before identifying the resources.

This is how you can turn a child who does not want to learn math into a person who is willing to try and become a good mathematician, which is still down the road. 

important notes to remember
“The teacher or the parent has to work against the belief that - I am not good at the subject."

Sriram: First of all, how do you recognize that there is anxiety? How do you know that the student is suffering from that? What are the signs that parents and teachers should look out for?



  • One of the reasons the child did a lot of physical manifestation comes in terms of anxiety. If there is an exam in the upcoming week, the kids will start showing symptoms and complain that "I have a headache," "I feel my stomach is not alright," or "I'm running a temperature."

           These are anxiety attacks of the approaching examination that follow.

  • When a child approaches me to join the program, I always assess them on their current level of math with simple questions, irrespective of their grades.

For example, if it's a 3rd grader, I would give a question like, "Write Nineteen thousand two hundred and sixty-seven in words and numerals." This helps me in analyzing the child's auditory perception and their writing skills, which also helps me to understand their strength and weakness in the concepts. 

  • We know when they come to elementary school or high school, most of the questions are word-based, and they need to decode the question for them to understand what's being asked. If they are struggling to decode, we could easily identify their anxiety towards the subject. 

Sriram: OK, so let's say the teacher (a little bit more experienced)  recognizes these details by teaching. What would you say a teacher can do to reduce these sorts of gaps?


Nithya: First, the child may be at Grade 4 in school, but his conceptual understanding or his ability in math would be only of a Grade 3.

Then you could give them a book from a lower grade and make them excel and feel at ease in what they are working on. Sometimes, kids perceived this as you are motivating them without labeling them.

  • The role of the teacher is to facilitate, motivate, and be a concept to a child. Each child is different. 
  • To identify where your student is and cater to that. Do not stop them from learning, but cater to his needs in that particular topic; just because he's not doing good at Fractions doesn't mean he's not going to be good at the particular topic. 
  • So don't stereotype or block someone saying that “you cannot do this,” “he or she cannot do this,” or “is not capable of doing so”; be a facilitator and a motivator. 
important notes to remember
“Kids (should) perceive this as you are motivating them without labeling them.”

Sriram: Wonderful! So that is good and interesting. So how would you increase interest in math? How to make math more interesting?


Nithya: While I started teaching Fractions to 6th graders, I knew they've been working on fractions from 4th grade. So, I gave them an activity based on Fractions. The activity was, they have to pick a symmetrical object that has an improper fraction. They can take either a spoon or a plate or take whatever they want. They just need to draw an improper fraction of that and show it to me.

With this, I was testing how much they have understood the topic of fractions based on the shapes they show using those objects. 

How fractions define shapes. 

Have you ever tried cutting a square cake in any other way other than a triangle or a square or a rectangle?


Sriram: No, I never thought of that. Actually, I've never done that.


Nithya: So I asked my class to draw up a square and draw circles into it. Again you're making the child think. What they have learned as ideas and facts and trying to make them form the synopsis into a concept or an idea of their own and visualizing it visualizing actually helps. It also reduces the odds.
Let me tell you, for such bizarre problems, the person who never solves a single problem correctly in class is the one who comes up with the best ideas because they are not boxed in by the rules.


Sriram: This brings me to the next set of questions, so then it seems like there are certain strengths and limitations to each kid. So what is your experience among the learning disabilities that you have seen?


Nithya: As I said, many kids actually have good math ability, and in my understanding, language is actually a problem, but even there, I don't see it as a learning disability. Many of them don't have a learning disability; what they have is called a learning gap because the language was not inculcated.

When I say four times three to my Columbus student, he understands what I'm trying to say, 4 into 3 is 12.

But when I say the same phrase “four times three” to a person who goes to a local school here. He's like, “Ma'am, are you asking for Multiplication?”

So, There's a lack of language. They are both equally bright; the problem is the language. So, disability is not that it is more of a learning gap, so many major learners have something called dyslexia

important notes to remember
“Person who never solves a single problem correctly in class, when not boxed in by the rules.”

Sriram: First of all, how do you recognize that there is anxiety? How do you know that the student is suffering from that? What are the signs that parents and teachers should look out for?



  •  A child in my class who was a visual learner will depend on what I'm writing on the board, and the child who is not only a visual learner listens to what I'm saying. A child who is an attacker learner will start doing on his own. A child who is not a holistic person has a little bit of all these three or four put together. This is the person who grasps the problem faster and will make most of the time.
  • Math is basically about working memory. It needs a lot of looking memory. Working out is what helps you solve any problem. 
  • Imagining and taking it to your brain in a matter of seconds with an ability to try solving it.
  • Understanding the concept and then applying it to other required areas
important notes to remember
“Understanding language is actually a problem.”

Sriram: Very insightful; I think we've covered everything that I wanted to. Thank you.


Nithya: Thank you.

Liked this blog? We would also like to suggest the following blogs,

You can also check out this TED-Ed Video about the reasons behind the anxiety related to Math.

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Psychological Reasons Behind the Fear of math


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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. How to overcome the fear of math?

Math phobia is defined as a feeling of anxiety that stops one from efficiently tackling mathematical problems. 

  • Debunk Myth Around Math. When it comes to overcoming math anxiety, the first thing you need to do is to debunk every myth surrounding math.

  • Positive Reinforcement

  • Back To Basics

  • Make Math Fun

  • Develop A Growth Mindset

2. What is Math Phobia?

Mathematical anxiety, also known as math phobia, is anxiety about one's ability to do mathematics. It is a phenomenon that is often considered when examining students' problems in mathematics.

3. What is Arithmophobia?

Also known as Numerophobia, it is often an exaggerated, constant, and irrational fear of numbers that can affect one's daily routine. It shouldn't be confused with Math Phobia, which is the anxiety about a person's ability to do math.

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