The Mystery of Mathematics Anxiety: Implications for School Psychologists

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We just featured this article over at This Week In Science, but it’s definitely relevant here are well.

Understanding Mathematics Anxiety: A Neural Network Perspective

Mathematics anxiety, a pervasive concern affecting roughly one-third of adolescents, undermines students’ ability to effectively engage with mathematical problems. This anxiety not only hinders performance in numerical tasks but also impacts their broader educational and career trajectories, particularly in STEM fields. The groundbreaking study, “A Neural Network Model of Mathematics Anxiety: The Role of Attention,” published in PLOS ONE (click here to read the article), offers a novel insight into this phenomenon, especially relevant for school psychologists and educators focused on improving school mental health.

The Role of Attention in Math Anxiety

The study posits that math anxiety disrupts attentional and inhibitory functions, leaving fewer cognitive resources for problem-solving. This disruption, termed the ‘disruption account,’ aligns with the Attentional Control Theory (ACT), which suggests that anxiety skews the balance between stimulus-driven and goal-directed attention systems.

Key Findings:

  • Inhibition, Attention, and Anxiety: The study shows that math anxiety can impair attention and inhibit control, especially regarding numerical stimuli.
  • Stroop Task and Math Anxiety: Results from a math-related Stroop task suggest that those with higher math anxiety struggle more with inhibiting distracting information, particularly when it is numerically salient.
  • Neural Network Modeling: A significant leap in this research is using neural network modeling, simulating how attentional impairment due to math anxiety might manifest in tasks like numerical Stroop and symbolic number comparison.

Implications for School Psychologists

For school psychologists, these findings are pivotal. They underscore the importance of identifying and supporting students with math anxiety, acknowledging that their struggles might be rooted in attentional deficits rather than a lack of ability or effort.

Strategies and Interventions:

  • Early Identification: Use screening tools to identify students with math anxiety early.
  • Attention-Focused Interventions: Tailor interventions to improve attentional control, such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioral strategies.
  • Collaboration with Educators: Work with teachers to create low-anxiety learning environments, emphasizing understanding over performance.

Broadening the Perspective on School Mental Health

This study doesn’t just add to the academic understanding of math anxiety; it provides a practical framework for addressing a critical aspect of school mental health. School psychologists can develop more effective strategies by shifting the focus to attentional processes, contributing to a more supportive and inclusive educational environment.

Future Directions:

  • Application in Curriculum Design: Insights from this study can inform the development of math curricula that are mindful of attentional demands.
  • Professional Development for Educators: Training teachers to recognize and address math anxiety can create a more empathetic and effective learning atmosphere.


The “Neural Network Model of Mathematics Anxiety” study opens new avenues in understanding and addressing math anxiety. By focusing on the role of attention, it provides school psychologists and educators with a fresh perspective and actionable strategies, paving the way for improved academic outcomes and mental well-being in schools.

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