Devan Moonsamy

Are you afraid of maths? Does it make you uncomfortable or easily confused? This is extremely common. Maths panic or maths anxiety may be the result of beliefs that maths is difficult and can only be mastered by ‘clever’ people.

It is this belief which people pick up from an early age that can lead
to life-long anxiety whenever we try to multiply or divide numbers. What is 72
divided by 9? We ought to have learnt our times
tables in school… But many of us simply freeze
when we are faced with such calculations,
and we end up reaching for our phones to
work it out.

What seems to underlie this problem is not that we ‘can’t do maths’, but
that we fear it. It is a fear that goes back so far into our childhood – think
of the stress you felt due to class tests
at a young age, and then exams as a teenager. We thus first need to confront
that fear and anxiety before we can hope to gain a better mastery of arithmetic.

In training sessions with adults, one of my
trainers at ICHAF tells learners, ‘Don’t let the maths panic get you.’ What does she mean? When faced with maths-related questions, we panic
before we get a chance to learn the steps to solve them. ‘Everything we
do in maths has a logical basis. You just need to learn the steps to follow to reach
the answer,’ she says.

If we can try to hold our anxiety at bay or suspend it for as long as
possible, and then begin the steps required, arithmetic becomes much less
stressful, and we can begin to master it.
It is now widely recognised that EQ – emotional intelligence – is more
important than IQ. This makes sense in terms of maths. We first need the emotional
discipline, not to understand maths initially, but to gain control over our own
emotions: our fear and anxiety about maths. Once we do that, we can develop the
clarity of mind required to focus on and work with numbers.

Without the unnecessary baggage of anxiety, maths becomes so much
easier. In fact, maths is a lot of fun, and
it’s very rewarding. Many great careers and hobbies require a good
foundation in maths.

What’s so important also is to help others, especially children, to
combat the fear and anxiety that comes with maths. We must be careful as adults
not to mislead children into thinking that maths is ‘too difficult’. We must
avoid creating such anxiety in others as it is extremely detrimental to their
personal growth. Remind yourself and
others: ‘Don’t panic, just follow the steps.’

What if someone’s difficulty with maths is more serious than a
short-term panic, however? Have you heard
of dyscalculia? It is a type of learning
disability that entails serious difficulty working with numbers and
arithmetic. People with dyscalculia may struggle with number-related concepts and
relationships. Using the various formulae, symbols and functions in mathematics
proves to be a serious challenge for them.

A person with dyscalculia may swap numbers around or struggle to
translate numbers in digits into words, and vice versa. Even quantities,
measurements and relative size can be challenging. For example, they may not
understand how 100cm can be equal to 1m and to

Something common among those with maths anxiety and dyscalculia is the
difficulty in holding numbers in working memory and then following steps to
solve a problem. Many of us easily get confused and give up.

When someone manages to work something out in their head, we may be truly amazed and think they have some exceptional, almost magical
ability. What they have managed to do is focus
on the numbers and block out other concerns long enough to figure out
the problem. There’s also nothing wrong with using pen and paper to work
problems out.

important, nevertheless, to understand that it is not that people with maths anxiety or dyscalculia can’t do arithmetic. They need time, patience
and practice. Trying to do maths under pressure is what makes it impossible. In
the end, it’s up to us not to hold
ourselves and others back in maths
development. Despite disabilities such as
dyscalculia, or with the more common maths-related anxiety, arithmetic skills
can still be learnt.

Devan Moonsamy, is the CEO of
ICHAF Training Institute, a Seta-approved training and development company.
ICHAF offers NQF levels training in business, computer skills training, and
soft skills development, among other programmes.

Devan specialises in conflict
management and diversity management, and he regularly conducts seminars for
corporates on these issues. He recently authored a book on handling diversity
in the South African workplace, including managing disabilities on the job.

His book Racism, Classism, Sexism, And The Other ISMs
That Divide Us is available from the
ICHAF Training Institute.

Tel: 011 262 2461 | Email: | Website: