The Derby Intervention for Maths Anxiety was designed and refined over 14 years by Professor David Sheffield and Dr Tom Hunt of the Department of Psychology, University of Derby. The Department of Education sent their consultant Human Engineer, Dr Lizzie Miles, to Derby, to check on their work.

Sheffield and Hunt ‘s simple method is intended for younger children, young adults and their teachers in their classroom. To use the method costs less than £5 per child.

Dr Hunt said, “The reason that our system in not formally recognised in the U.K. – although we have been using it for a number of years – is because we haven’t got £15,000 to spend on a formal trial.”

“The panic, helplessness, paralysis, and mental disorganization that arises among some people when they are required to solve a mathematical problem” (Tobias & Weissbrod, 1980).

“Feelings of tension, apprehension, or even dread that interferes with the ordinary manipulation of number and the solving of mathematical problems” (Ashcraft & Faust, 1994).

According to Burns (1998) 66% of Americans fear and loathe maths. In a study of over 9000 students, Jones (2001) found that 25.9% had a moderate to high need of help with maths anxiety.

We’ve developed and tested two questionnaires for use with younger children (aged 4-7 years; Numeracy Apprehension Scale; NAS) and young adults/teenagers and adults (Mathematics Anxiety Scale; MAS-UK).

The MAS-UK was developed and tested in over 1,000 people (mostly UG students). The final scale includes 23 items and individuals are asked to report how anxious they would feel (on a five-point scale) in various scenarios involving maths. The MAS-UK has three sub-scales pertaining to different aspects of maths anxiety: maths evaluation anxiety; social/everyday maths anxiety; maths observation anxiety. Here are some examples of items:

  • Calculating how many days until a person’s birthday
  • Watching a teacher/lecturer write equations on the board
  • Adding up a pile of change
  • Having someone watch you multiply 12 x 23 on paper

The NAS was developed from focus groups with 41 reception, year 1 and year 2 children; parents; teachers and maths experts. It was reduced to 19 items and involves rating with 3 emoticons. Some examples:

emoji smiling

  • When my friends finish their number work before me…
  • If I make a mistake in numeracy…
  • When I see lots of numbers…
  • When my teacher wants me to do numeracy at home…

Both scales are free from the authors – contact

Research findings have demonstrated a positive correlation between maths anxiety and test anxiety (r = .65, Hendel,1980) and trait anxiety (Hunt, Clark-Carter & Sheffield, 2014). The strength of these correlations indicates that, whilst maths anxiety is related to other forms of anxiety, it is a unique construct.

Education / course / career choice
High school children with maths anxiety are less likely to intend to take further maths courses (Meece et al. ,1990; Hembree, 1990). Also, in a sample of female university students Chipman et al. (1992) found that more than 25% agreed with the statement “the desire to avoid mathematics is affecting my career choice”.

Maths Anxiety and Calculation
There is strong and consistent evidence for performance differences as a function of maths anxiety (Hembree 1990). Specifically, higher maths anxiety is related to poorer maths performance. This is particularly prominent on two column addition problems involving carry operations, e.g. 27+56=? as they involve work memory (Ashcraft & Faust,1994).

We also found that maths anxiety has an effect on accuracy, particularly when performing a secondary task that puts heavy demands on working memory. Maths anxiety probably affects accuracy because anxious thoughts load working memory resources which may be needed for calculation (counting strategies). Indeed, we (Hunt et al., 2014) found that intrusive, worrisome thoughts impeded calculation, particularly in students with high maths anxiety.

Since then we have developed and tested some brief interventions.

Game-based workbooks
100 children (mean age = 8.11 years) were randomly assigned to one of three intervention groups during the Christmas holidays: maths intervention, non-maths intervention and no intervention. Self-directed, limited engagement in a fun mathematics intervention led to significant increases in mathematics performance and confidence.

Such intervention may benefit children who experience maths anxiety and/or are under-performing. Without a mathematics intervention, performance, self-efficacy and confidence remained stable across the school break, allowing children to pursue extra-curricular, non-academic interests without significantly impeding their mathematics performance or self-beliefs.

Based on Emotion Regulation theory, writing down worries and fears helps control anxiety (Klein and Boals, 2001). Park, Beilock and Ramirez (2014) – writing just before maths test helps with high maths anxious. More anxiety related words = better performance.

We compared writing thoughts and worries about the upcoming test with writing about the room they were in. Expressive condition achieved more correct scores (56) than the control condition (52) and they had fewer intrusive thoughts.

We examined detached reappraisal beneficial (Gross, 2002). For example, Beltzer, Nock, Peter & Jamieson (2014) looked at the effects of reinterpreted reappraisal on performance.

Participants were faced with an anxiety evoking task, some were told anxious feelings were beneficial to their performance, others were told nothing at all. Individuals who had been reappraised to see anxiety as beneficial performed better than controls.

In our study reappraisal involved 32 students listening to these instructions: “I want you to now identify a “safe place” somewhere you feel safe and relaxed, now close your eyes and imagine yourself in your safe place for 20 seconds, the researcher will tell you when 20 seconds is up”. This was compared to a control condition where 32 students waited quietly for 20 seconds. Students in the reappraisal condition performed better (35 vs. 32 correct answers), and reported less worry, than those in the control condition.


  • Maths anxiety is a distinct response to performing and being observed completing number tasks.
  • It is measurable.
  • It can be recognised in children as young as 4-5 years.
  • It has direct consequences on calculation processes through working memory.
  • Interventions can help if they target the anxiety and/or make maths fun.
  • Brief interventions are promising approaches for the classroom.

We now hope to further develop (in some cases) and test brief interventions in schools. We consider brief interventions (<10 minutes) to be most helpful in the classroom, as they involve minimal time and effort for teachers and children; they allow teaching to remain the main activity of lessons. We already have experience of working in schools, interviewing children, testing young and older children, and using some brief intervention approaches with some success.

We propose targeting children aged 7 to 14 years old given that maths anxiety is frequently reported in children aged 7 years and above (Chinn, 2012). Maths anxiety has an established relationship with maths performance (Ashcraft, 2002) and this has been related to working memory capacity (Sheffield & Hunt, 2007), responses to threat (Lyons & Beilock, 2012) and emotion regulation (Attentional Control Theory; Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007). We would assess maths anxiety, using psychometrically tested scales for UK children that we have developed, self-reported maths self-efficacy and confidence, and performance, based on test results, before and after the interventions.

The four brief interventions we believe that are most promising are: expressive writing, reappraisal, brief mindfulness and compassionate imagery. They are based on proven approaches to help individuals cope with pressure and anxiety when they perform, i.e. during tests and examinations.

The expressive writing intervention would comprise a brief writing task before tests. The reappraisal intervention involves children imagining a safe space/place where they can relax. The mindfulness intervention will ask children to focus on their breathing and being mindful of the moment (Zeidan et al., 2010; Sheffield et al., 2014). The self-compassion intervention will comprise imagery tasks that cultivate kindness and acceptance to the self (Maratos, Sheffield et al., 2015).

Embedding these approaches within classroom teaching should provide children additional strategies to perform at their best when completing maths lessons and tests.
The strategies outlined above represent a straight forward, intuitive approach to reducing maths anxiety in the classroom and, importantly, these can be practiced beyond the classroom. They also have few monetary and time costs associated with them, making them appealing to maths educators.

However, more work is needed to test the efficacy of writing and reappraisal techniques across different groups and ages of children. We are keen to work with teachers to design such interventions and extend them where possible. To do this, we require minimal funding; a cost-benefit analysis of such investment provides clear justification for the work. For as little as £5,000 we are able to implement and test an intervention in a single school. As such, we are appealing for funding to do this, building on the work that we have already completed.

© Dr Tom Hunt and Prof. David Sheffield, 2018.