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Raising a confident maths fan – Q&A with experts

Get expert advice to help children with self-confidence and maths learning. 

Should you help your child practice maths or leave them to do it on their own? If you struggle with maths, how can you help your child do their best if you don’t know the answer?

We put these questions and many more to three experts in a live ‘Question and Answer’ session.

Award-winning teacher Colin Hegarty, parenting expert Anita Cleare and from the charity Maths on Toast Lucy Davis, answered parents’ questions. The panel shared their advice to help parents support children of all ages with self-confidence and maths learning.

Missed it? Don’t miss out! There’s still time to watch a recording of this session for free.

In this video, you’ll discover:

  • What confidence means for child development and how you can help your child feel confident
  • How to discuss feelings about schoolwork and help children realise they are not “bad at maths”
  • What to do if you feel stressed and anxious about maths
  • Why it’s OK not to help your child find all the answers
  • How to establish a homework routine and create an environment where your child can learn and revise at home
  • The power of practice and why even 20 minutes a day can make a huge difference to maths learning and confidence
  • How to introduce maths in fun and creative ways to younger children
  • Why you should celebrate mistakes and empower children to try different methods to reach an answer
  • The long-term benefits of encouraging children and teenagers to take responsibility for their own learning
  • Where to get further parenting advice and support
  • Useful websites and online tools that provide maths activities and revision guides to help both children and adults get to grips with maths topics.

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Introducing the panel

Colin Hegarty 0:00

Hello everyone and good evening. It’s lovely to have you guys on the session tonight. It’s one of my favourite topics. We’re talking about confidence this evening, and in particular, confidence in maths and how to raise a confident maths fan. So, it’s really, really exciting. And thank you so much for joining everyone. It’s lovely to see so many of you here. It’s such an important topic.

My name is Colin Hegarty. I’m the founder of HegartyMaths. I used to be a maths teacher and made HegartyMaths to help children learn maths at home and get a little bit more confident. And now I’m Education Director of Numerise.

And I’ve actually, my wife just had a little baby girl a couple of days ago. But I still wanted to attend this event because I really wanted to meet Lucy and Anita – some amazing experts we’ve got today on maths confidence. And I wanted to have a session with you guys just to talk about a topic that’s really important to myself.

So, without further ado, let’s introduce our wonderful panellists this evening. And let’s start with Lucy Davis. Lucy, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background and confidence in maths – what it means to you.

Lucy Davis, CEO, Maths on Toast

Lucy Davis 1:17

So, my name is Lucy Davis, and I’m the Chief Executive of Maths on Toast. So, my background is in community education, community engagement, parental engagement. I’ve worked in a lot of small charities and voluntary organisations. Maths on Toast that I now run is the family maths charity and our mission is to show everybody that maths is a fun, enjoyable family activity. And that maths actually is for everybody.

We want everyone to be able to feel positive about maths and to feel that it is something that they can do and they can enjoy. I’m the daughter of a maths teacher, so from a young age, maths was fun for us, because my maths-teacher-dad just loved puzzles and games. And so for me, maths was all about puzzles and games and exploring. And so I didn’t have that very rigid definition of maths that many people have. For me maths wasn’t just numbers, maths was shapes and building things, and exploring.

And so that positive attitude towards maths is absolutely how you can learn to love maths and become, of course, confident about maths. Because if you don’t feel comfortable and at ease with something and you don’t enjoy it, then it’s much harder to feel it’s something you can do, you can take the challenges, you can explore. So that’s the background to it, it fits in perfectly with Maths on Toast. And hopefully, we can share some ideas this evening about building that confidence in maths with children from a very young age and making it playful and fun. So it’s part of their everyday lives.

Colin Hegarty 3:15

That’s really cool, Lucy. I hope I can, with the new baby, become a good daddy as well and do playful maths with my young ones when the time’s right. So really excited to hear what we say later Lucy. And Anita Cleare as well. And thank you so much for joining us, Anita. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience in confidence and self-esteem with children.

Anita Cleare, Director, Positive Parenting Project

Anita Cleare 3:39

Hi everybody. Nice to meet you. As Colin said, my name is Anita Cleare. So, I’ve been working with parents for about 15 years now on all aspects of parenting and children’s wellbeing. My background is developmental psychology. So I have a postgraduate qualification in child development. And I’m Director of the Positive Parenting Project and I write a parenting advice blog. If you’re looking for advice Colin, that’s the place to go. It’s called Thinking Parenting. And it’s full of kind of helpful tips on things that parents can do to support children’s development in all different fields. And also to create a positive family dynamic so that everyone can thrive.

One of the problems is that homework can become a really negative part of a family life. We can get into battles with our children about, you know, about homework, about studying, and it can create a lot of resentment and negativity. So, for me, you know, what I’d really like to do is to think about how we can positively as parents support our children with their learning.

And I published a book earlier this year, which is called the Work Parent Switch, which is specifically for working parents. Now, I think if you’re a working parent, homework comes at exactly the wrong time, doesn’t it? You’re already running on empty from, you know, having just done a day at work or even if it’s working from home. And it’s hard to be supportive and empathetic and encouraging, when you’re just tired, and you just want it all over and done with, and you just want them to get it right and move on.

So that’s written for younger children. So that’s really younger children up to the age, end of primary school. So don’t rush out and buy it, if you’ve got a 13-year-old, you’ll just be disappointed. But if you’ve got younger ones, it would be the, you know, a really good book. There’s a whole chapter in there about homework, about managing tech time, all of the really tricky things I think that parents face around supporting our children through learning through childhood.

And for me, confidence is, you know, I take confidence from quite a wide level. So thinking about, you know, it’s really important for parents and for children. But it isn’t about being good at stuff, we sometimes think confidence is about being good at things, and it isn’t. Nobody can be good at everything.

Confidence is about feeling like you’re the one with a plan, that you’ve got a way of responding, when you don’t know the answer, when you are challenged, when you have got a problem. So it isn’t about being the best at stuff, it isn’t even be getting the answer right. Confidence is about feeling like you know what to do, when you don’t know what to do, and you don’t know the answer. So that’s very much kind of, you know, how I think that parents can support children is, is in that side of things, is being the person with a plan because nobody can know all the answers.

Colin Hegarty 6:42

What a great introduction and Anita and Lucy, really excited to delve into this further. And to everyone in the session today. Thank you again for joining. It’s a wonderful topic and can’t wait to go a little bit deeper on the topic.

There’s been some questions in advance that you guys have sent in. So we’re just going to start taking a few of those questions. We’ll start off asking Lucy, Anita and myself just some of our thoughts on the questions you’ve already sent in. But also, please in the chat, feel free to, you know, based on what Lucy and Anita and myself say, ask us a question or two in the chat so that we can react in the moment and make sure we’re tailoring our answers to what you guys want to hear about.

Just a quick one from me, when you do write a question, please put a question mark on the end in the chatbox if you can, because that way, we can project it onto the screen so that everyone else can see the question that we’re talking about. So just put a question mark, if you want to write us a question throughout the session.

And also, just a quick reminder that today’s session, it will go on ‘til about six o’clock. And what we’re going to do is at the end of it, we’re recording the session, so we will send it out to you as well. So don’t worry about, you know, there’s been already some really good tips and links and books mentioned in the session, but you can rewatch it. And you know, don’t worry, you can find all that information back again, because we will be sending out the session afterwards, as well as a few other links to confidence that can help you and your children and after the session.

Tips to help a learner build their confidence in maths

So, let’s start with a question here that, I think Lucy and Anita have already talked a little bit about confidence and the importance of it, but how about what are some of the key tips to help a learner build their confidence in maths? What can we do if we want to improve that confidence given that we’ve already talked about how important that is? Anita, maybe you could start us off on that topic?

Anita Cleare 8:48

Well, from a child development perspective, if you break down confidence, it’s got three different elements. Okay, so confidence is about feeling competent. So, feeling like you’re good at something, or that you are able to do something, not that you’re brilliant at it, but that you can do something.

But it’s also about feeling effective that what you do makes a difference. So for example, believing that when I practice, I get better at something, or when I ask a question, I will be able to learn more. So it’s actually about feeling that not only do I have the skills and the competence, but I can get better at those. There are things I can do that make, that will help me learn.

But it’s also, the third element, is about feeling accepted. And this sounds a bit strange, but it’s feeling that I am – it’s okay to fail. Because I am acceptable, I’m valuable, I’m lovable, I’m likeable, regardless of whether or not I fail at something.

Now, I think that’s really important to understand those three elements because what parents can do is to support all three of those so we can, you know, we can praise children and reinforce when they get it right so that they feel competent. But we can also focus on effort and change and get them to look at what happened as a result of you doing that, getting them to set their own goals and self-evaluate, you know, so ‘why did you get a better score this time than you did last time?’ So we get that sense of effectiveness.

But we also give them permission, that it’s okay not to be brilliant at it. And it’s okay to get it wrong. Because getting it wrong, yipee! Now I know that that’s the wrong way to do it. So therefore, that’s a good thing to happen. So trying to have that culture that failure is okay to support those three different elements, I think of confidence.

So feeling competent, feeling effective, and feeling accepted are really, really important that we support all three of those, I think. Colin, you’re on mute.

Colin Hegarty 10:57

Great. That’s – always going to forget that one. Thanks, Anita. And that was a great answer. And Lucy, I know, you’ve talked about something similarly yourself to what Anita was talking about there about, you know, it’s not always about being right all the time, it’s about the way to approach your mathematics. So tell us what you see, Lucy, as some of the key things that a child can do, or a parent can do with their child to help build that confidence, as well.

Enjoying maths

Lucy Davis 11:25

For us at Maths on Toast, it’s very much about the attitude towards maths. And so building that enjoyment, because if you can enjoy something, you’ve got the first step down. I totally agree with what Anita was saying. We talk about being comfortable and at ease with maths. If you’re comfortable and at ease with maths, then you feel ready to take on new challenges, you feel ready to explore, you feel ready to try different things out. Now that’s true about confidence in general in every part of life, but in maths, it’s vital.

We have a very rigid perception of maths, many, many people, many adults – and it may in part be due to the way they were taught maths, in the maths upbringing they had – we think of maths as black or white, correct answer, wrong answer. But often, maths is all about the journey. So it’s about knowing, which is the way to get to that answer. There might be one right answer. But there’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 different ways to get there. And if you can be confident, to try those different ways, to make mistakes, exactly, as Anita said, ‘Oh that didn’t work, let’s try a different method’. It’s so relevant to maths. You try the different methods, and you get the result. And in the process, your understanding of maths has become very deep, because you haven’t just memorised a maths fact that you can quickly answer like that. You’ve worked out how to get to the answer you’ve explored.

And for confidence in maths for young learners, it all starts with play and exploration. And this starts from a young age and Maths on Toast, our age range we aim for is four- to 12-year-olds and their families. But this, it’s through hands-on exploratory, playful, creative, colouring, craft, construction, puzzles, games, they’re all activities you can do as a family, that children can do together. There’s not always a right or wrong answer. You’ll come out with something creative at the end. And you will have learned that maths is fun, or ‘we can all enjoy maths, we can do maths. And it was tricky. But we all worked together. And it all came together at the end.’

And if you could develop that attitude to maths at as young an age as possible, it gives the children the comfort, they feel at ease, they’re happy to make mistakes, they’re happy to try challenges. And so, they feel confident to go on and learn the much harder parts of maths that you will encounter when you get to secondary level.

And the last thing to remember on that point is that the confidence is to work it through and take your time. Time-pressured maths can be very detrimental to many, many children but also to adults. And as one of the trustees of Maths on Toast, Dr Alison Clark-Wilson, who works at the UCL Institute for Education said, it took mathematicians years and sometimes decades to work out some of these mathematical theories that we’re learning in secondary and so if you can’t get it straight away, have the confidence to try and to try things out. And I think that’s how everything that Anita has said fits into the maths confidence framework.

Colin Hegarty 15:12

Yeah, it’s funny how, you know, Lucy, Anita, what you guys are talking about, obviously from a sort of, you know, parenting angle, slightly different angle to myself as a secondary school teacher, but it all fits in precisely with, with my experience. I mean, even my own childhood, I remember my own maths teacher, I didn’t actually like maths that much when I was young. But my teacher, my, early in secondary school, said ‘You know what, Colin, it’s not a big deal if you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world, it’s an opportunity to learn why you made that mistake, and explore a little bit more and, and move forward from that’.

And that was new to me, because actually, I thought it was about getting ticks all the time. And when I didn’t get a tick, when I got a cross, I thought something was wrong with me. And I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. But having a teacher who just said that to me, or it could be an adult, can be a parent who knows to say these things, that was a big move forward for me and also, in secondary school personally, as well Lucy, it’s interesting what you said there, it was never about speed. Actually, it was my teacher’s always about the workings, ‘show your workings. Tell me what’s in your head, let me help you, you know all about that.’ And it just took away that high stakes element to maths that sometimes there is where you think you’ve got to get it right. And you’ve got to, not only have you got to get it right, but you better get it right quickly, or else, you know, you’re thick. And it’s not about that at all, and just having someone to tell you this at a young age was quite a big deal.

How do you respond to a child who says they’re no good at maths?

From my perspective, as a maths teacher, actually, it’s funny when one of the first things I do when I take over a class is, I ask them to write me a little note about how they feel about maths or what they think about that. And the amount of times that children just say – it’s interesting, we’ve got a question here from Anna Pedroza – they just say, I’m no good at maths, I can’t do it, that’s my biggest fear. And some children write in the notes: Sir, whatever you do, don’t ask me a question in class, don’t point at me and ask me the question because I don’t respond well to that.

And so, what would you guys say about that sort of really direct ‘I’m no good at maths’. If a child says that to you, what’s the type of things we should be saying to our child back? If they sort of say that to us, Anita, have you got any good suggestions there?

Anita Cleare 17:30

Well, I think that kind of negative thinking is quite common, really, for children, whether it’s football, maths or anything else. They look at, they interpret events, maybe they’re not doing so well, they’re not getting great grades. And what they do is they personalise that and globalise it and say, ‘well, that means I’m no good at maths, I’m never going to be good at maths, it doesn’t matter what I do.’

So I have this little thing, which I call, I call a pizza pie. Okay, which is you can’t challenge someone’s opinion, if someone has an opinion that they’re bad at maths, if you say, ‘Don’t be silly, you’re good at maths’, you’ll get nowhere. Because that’s just, you know, they’ve got their opinion, and their opinion is based on evidence. So I say, ‘what’s your evidence for that? Okay, where did you get that thought from? What is your evidence? You know, everybody has to have evidence for an assertion, I will believe you if you can give me the evidence for that.’

And if they say, ‘well I got you know, whatever it is, a really low mark in this particular test’ so you say, ‘okay, so you did, that is a correct fact, you’ve got a low mark. Now, there could be a lot of different explanations for that, though. Couldn’t there? Okay, so can you think of one of the explanations is, you’re no good at maths, but there’s normally more than one explanation. Can you think of five other explanations as to why you got that?’ And then, you know, it could be ‘well, I didn’t like that particular topic, or I missed some of the lessons or I didn’t revise or’, and then suddenly, they’re coming up with reasons that aren’t about them. They’re about situations or about context. And you say, ‘okay, so you got that score. One of the reasons was you didn’t revise, but that’s something you could do something about, isn’t it? Or you’ve got that because you really didn’t click with that topic. Okay, well, the next topic you might click with.’

So it’s about going back to the evidence rather than just going into I say, you say, I say, you say, you know, you’re wrong I’m right situation. Go back to the evidence and help them reinterpret it. And that’s the only way to really challenge somebody’s viewpoint on how they feel about themselves. So you just sow a little bit of doubt in there. And just see if you can get a little bit of doubt about whether or not there is something they can do about that. And then just work with that little chink with them. That’s, you know, what I would say about negative thinking about any sort of topic.

30% of adults wrongly believe maths is a skill you’re born with

Colin Hegarty 19:52

What a good piece of advice. I’m writing that down for getting through my own daily life, Anita. Lucy, have you got any suggestions for you know, maybe younger kids? Do you ever face that on Maths on Toast? Where younger children already have that opinion about themselves?

Lucy Davis 20:14

I would say that Anita talked about generally, and I completely back up what she said. And there’s an interesting one, it’s called ‘don’t deny, discuss’. So if some child or an adult says something to you, don’t instantly answer with a denial of what they’ve said, discuss it and ask them exactly, why do you feel that? And so then you start the discussion and you start to unpick it.

With maths specifically, we know that it is, it’s seen, as I said, in this very rigid way, as a black or white subject. And people often believe they’ve either got a maths brain, or they haven’t, they’re good at maths, or they’re not. There’s a statistic from National Numeracy that 30% of adults wrongly believe that maths is a skill you’re born with. And so many parents have that. And they will say up to their children, ‘oh, I’m not very good at maths. So we’re not very good at maths, we’re not a maths family.’ And so they’re already passing on that negativity to a child who may not really have even encountered maths. So we do get that passed on a lot.

There’s a lot of research around this, how maths attitudes are passed down through families or from adult to child, so it may be from a bad experience in their maths learning, in their maths education. To a child who says that, what we would say either in one of our sessions, or the way we approach it through all of our resources, all we would say to a parent is show the child, do some maths with the child, maths that you know the child can do, and does enjoy. Let’s broaden that perception of what maths is.

Maths isn’t just number, maths is shapes, a lot of spatial maths – shape, space and measure is very important for young ages. And so if you start exploring all that type of maths and you start doing the maths, you start playing with it, and then the child will see that they’ve done something. And then you might say to them, ‘oh well you’ve really enjoyed building that’, or ‘you’ve worked that out.’ And then you point out to them, that was maths, so they may not have realised that was maths. So by pointing out that maths is everywhere, and we’re doing it all the time, by showing them that they are doing maths, by doing it together, and working through something, then that already is the proof to point out to them, ‘oh you can do maths, look you can do that part’.

And even in older children, I think it’s better if they’re saying that they can’t do some maths, find some maths that they can do, or something related to maths even if it seems quite a tenuous link, do it, and then praise effort, even if they haven’t got it right. Work it out, see how you worked out. And then say, ‘look, you can do maths.’ And so it’s all about changing that perception and changing that attitude. But I still would yeah, absolutely go back to Anita’s first point, is don’t just deny and try and tell them they’re wrong. Show them they are wrong by doing things.

What’s your maths story?

Colin Hegarty 23:39

Yeah, that’s such a great answer. I mean, just myself, remember, I told you, I used to get the children to write down how they felt about maths before I started teaching them and some of them would just say, ‘I’m not a maths person, I can’t do it.’ And, what I would do is, you know, as you guys said, I wouldn’t battle with that, I’d accept that, I’d say, ‘thank you so much for sharing with me so honestly, that’s so kind of you and I can’t wait to teach you this year.’

And, what also I find quite useful is a little bit of storytelling. You know, all humans really connect with the story and when you can empathise with them, and just sort of, you know, tell them a story about how I used to feel when I was young, but how you got through it as well. You know, what you don’t want to do is just say, ‘yeah, I’m rubbish at maths, too. You know, we’re just rubbish at maths,’ as you said, Lucy, you don’t want that sort of ‘it’s in the genes’ thinking to happen. You want it to be about, you know, getting through it and perseverance.

So yeah, I just say, ‘really appreciate that. Can’t wait to teach you this year. Let me tell you my own story and how I got through my difficulty.’ And exactly as you said Lucy, start with some maths they can do, get that confidence going, make it about participation and effort, praise them for that and slowly by slowly build up to the point where, you know, they’re doing something that’s actually challenging them, but you know, you brought them there on a nice slow journey.

Lucy Davis 24:58

Can I just add something? I think what you’ve just said about your maths story is incredibly important. We do always ask people about their maths story, what is maths to them, what roles you had. And many people will tell you they didn’t like maths and then they had a great maths teacher, or they might tell you about the types of maths that they liked. And that maths story is turning it into something else.

And it’s that journey, the maths journey, we have something in Maths on Toast that we use called the toast model. And it’s based on the growth mindset model, by Carol Dweck and various other researchers. And we call it the toast model, because we have a plate and our toast and our jam. And we get people to talk about the journey of feeling cold and off the plate – ‘I can’t do that maths.’ Making your way on to the toast. It’s crunchy and chewy, but it’s a challenge. Getting to the sweet spot jam. ‘Oh, I can do it. Actually, is that a bit easy? I need something a bit chewier, back on the toast.’

And we use that to explore people’s feelings about the maths and the maths journey. And I think that’s really important at all ages. But if you can get younger children, primary children, having that type of thinking about maths that will serve them well in secondary and encouraging them to tell their maths story.

Colin Hegarty 26:29

Great stuff, I think there’s great points there. And we’re just looking at the chat there. I know we’ve got some students in the house today. So a big shout out to all the students who are here listening in for little tips to help with your maths and some of you use HegartyMaths. So massive shout out here from Mr Hegarty. Lovely to have you guys in the session as well.

It’s interesting, we’ve, we’ve talked about the student and the child thinking, you know, improving their confidence, the importance of confidence for them and their maths journey or story. Obviously, parents have a big role to play in this as well. And I think Lucy alluded to it a little bit earlier, sometimes parents also lack a little bit of confidence to help their child and in the subject of mathematics.

How does a parent’s confidence in maths affect their child?

Just interestingly here, over on, we did a study recently, and two thirds of the parents in that study said they wish they would be a bit more confident in maths and 40% said they feel anxiety helping their child with their maths homework. So we’ve obviously got some parents in the session today. How do we think a parent’s confidence in maths affects what happens with their child? Maybe Anita you start off with that one?

Anita Cleare 27:47

Well, I mean, the first thing to remember is stress and anxiety are contagious. So if you’re trying to help your child, you know, and you’re feeling very anxious about the subject, then that’s going to leak out, and it’s going to be, you know, communicated. So it’s really important to remember that, you know, it’s never about getting the answer right. And I think when you take the pressure off and think this isn’t about getting the answer right, this is about process. So I encourage parents to think about process rather than outcomes.

So your job as a parent is actually to provide a place where your child can study that’s quiet, you know, to make sure they have a time, a time when it’s quiet in the house, or they have a study time, to encourage and support them to do that. But what it’s not your job is to try and kind of shove the learning into their heads, because that’s impossible, it can’t be done.

So focus on what you can control, which is providing that, that supportive environment around study and those good learning habits, those good study habits, because if they’ve got a good process around studying, then the outcomes will follow. So focus on that. If you find yourself getting stressed and anxious about it, be very careful about being involved at that moment. Because when we’re stressed as parents, you know, what happens is we activate that, that sort of fight or flight bit of the brain that our body goes on to high alert and that’s got a really valuable function in our lives, that keeps us safe, you know that, that, that sort of stressed and anxious response.

It’s not particularly helpful when it comes to parenting a child who doesn’t want to do their maths homework, because when we’re in that state, we tend to be overly reactive, we get triggered, we’re much more likely to go into conflict and escalate and to end up shouting at them and, and you know, and things becoming very, very negative, which is the last thing we want because then the next time, all of the memory of that negativity comes back with the next maths homework.

We’re also more likely to judge when we’re in an anxious state as a parent. So when we’re feeling anxious and our child can’t do something, we tend to interpret that negatively. And we tend to think they’re doing that deliberately. They’re being awkward. ‘I just showed them this yesterday, yesterday they could do this,’ and we get frustrated. So I would say, if you’re in that state where you’re feeling anxious, walk away from it, if you’ve got yourself into a bit of a tizz, actually just say: ‘well, you’ve got it there, you’ve got your books, I’ll leave you for 10 minutes, yeah? Have a go, I’m gonna go make a cup of tea, whatever it is, and we’ll come back and see how you’re doing.’ Actually take yourself out of the equation and, and leave them for a while to work through it. Because I think when we get into that heightened state of stress, we just escalate it and make things you know, a lot worse.

But if you can, think about process, just think about study habits, focus on that side, so that you can be calm around homework. So you’ve got a regular homework routine, a regular study habit, and that that’s your job, is to reinforce that. And if they don’t know the answer, your job is to problem solve with them about what to do about that. ‘So okay, you don’t know the answer, that’s fine. What could you do about that? Yeah? Do you think it might be in the book? Do you think it might be online? Could you text one of your friends? Could you just ask the teacher tomorrow?’ Whatever it is, so you’re helping them to problem solve and the process, rather than it being your job to come up with the answers because no parent can know all of maths GCSE. It’s just not possible. It’s, you know, we can’t do it unless we’ve just done that, you know, exam ourselves. And that’s kind of what I focus on with parents is, is, is help process not outcomes.

Colin Hegarty 31:39

Great answer and Lucy what about, you know, that’s about processes and setting up the right habits at home and, you know, the parent not having to be the fountain of the mathematical knowledge, the parents are facilitator and can help the child get there. What about parents who just have that horrible inner feeling in their stomach about maths in particular? You know, it’s coming out in the research that Numerise has done, it came out in a section you talked about earlier from National Numeracy, what that deep-seated fear that they might have had since childhood and maths just makes them want to, you know, run away from the situation, what do they do, because to get over that, in particular about the subject of maths?

Dealing with maths anxiety

Lucy Davis 32:27

I think the thing is that, absolutely, what you said, you are not there as a parent to actually have all the answers. And the point about process is the most valid because in maths itself, again, a lot of people of a certain generation and the way they’ve learned maths, they see maths as just, it’s maths fact. Whereas the process that Anita talked about is, having your process, is totally relevant to maths. It’s how you work through it, to get to that answer.

We’ve all spoken about this earlier in the session. And now is probably the good point for me to say that as the daughter of a maths teacher, my dad always taught me that how you work out the maths is often worth as many points in a maths test or exam as the correct answer. Because if you make a tiny mistake on the answer at the end, if you’ve got all the correct workings out, it shows that you knew how to get there. And so this whole thing of process and the parents not knowing the answer, it means that you’re there to encourage your child, as both of you said, to work it through and to develop their skills of working things out. Their skill set, not just their knowledge.

If you as a parent are petrified of maths, maths anxiety is an actual recognised condition. And what it does is exactly what Anita says, it triggers your amygdala, which is the bit at the back of your brain, which triggers your fight or flight response. Your prefrontal cortex at the front, your logical thinking brain, works more slowly and cannot catch up with that triggered response.

So however you’ve got that response, and you may have that because you had lots of performance maths as a child, you were put on the spot and told to give an answer – ‘you, quick, give the answer’ – or you were told to recite your times tables as quickly as possible, and so it put that fear into you. And changing that fear is an incredibly difficult process. And so the most important thing, again, going back to what Anita said, is that you recognise you have that reaction and you work extra hard to not pass that anxiety on to your child.

Now you can be honest with them and you can say ‘maths was taught in a very different way when I was a child. I do find maths very difficult and I didn’t like being put on the spot and the performance side. So let’s sit down together. I don’t know the answer. But let’s see if we can work it out. And if we can’t, you can get here, this is a secondary level, you could get those answers from your teacher.’

If you’ve got younger children, I really would recommend playing the games and the puzzles, doing the creative activities. That’s what Maths on Toast is for, is so you relax making your beautiful design and pattern where actually you’re exploring symmetry, and shape, and tessellation. And these are all mathematical concepts. So you’re feeling relaxed. And then you can hopefully, in that sense, try and challenge yourself in your firm belief that you’re rubbish at maths, because you have done some maths. And then you may see some of that maths reflected in the maths that your children are doing at school.

And so kind of that twofold is, one is don’t put yourself under extreme pressure, remove yourself from the situation if you need to calm down, and then do your maths with your child and be honest, and reflect and take time. I think those are the best ways to try and deal with any form of anxiety around learning. But they’re particularly relevant in maths, because maths is all about the process and working it out and getting a deeper understanding.

Colin Hegarty 36:32

Yeah, I mean, I’m really into the games myself. At the moment, Lucy, just the other day, when we brought the two-day-old to the hospital for a check-up, I had my two-year-old with me and we just walked around the car park together saying the colours of the cars and any number she could see on the registration plate. So any, she just thinks of it as a game right now and she loves doing it with me and just, you know, building up that confidence with numbers even at two, you know, I can, I’m hoping fingers crossed that it will, it will pay the dividends over time.

How can parents build up their knowledge of maths to help their child?

There’s a couple of themes just coming through as well in the chat. I just want to say a big thanks to Sabina and Greta who say how their children actually love Numerise. And it’s been really helpful for them. And Charlie came up, Charlie Shepherd came up with a good point here. So it was as a parent, we can help our child in other subjects by reading around the topic. But it’s not always true in maths and how would you go about building up the parent’s knowledge of maths to enable us to help our child? So Charlie, maybe if I just start with a couple of things on that from a secondary perspective, and maybe Lucy could go into the younger age on that?

But one of the good things, Charlie, about systems like Numerise and HegartyMaths is they have the explainer videos along with the questions. And that can be really helpful because sometimes as you say, Charlie, the, you know, the methods are probably different from when we were at school. When I first became teacher, I didn’t know how to teach various things to children because the methods were completely different about how I learned and that brought me a bit of anxiety as a teacher who’s you know, really good at, you know, what, really experienced at maths at this stage.

So, watching other teachers teach on YouTube or on the Numerise videos or on the Hegarty videos, that’s often something that parents do with their children. So they do their practice, as Lucy and Anita talked about, they talk about how to get to, how to think through the problem, how to verbalise what’s in their head, but ultimately, they will watch a teacher teach it as well. That’s really helpful for the parents just to build up that, that knowledge, Charlie, and also in particular, you know, slightly different knowledge that might exist from when we were at school. So that’s one thing I’d recommend, I’d recommend things like Numerise, things like HegartyMaths, there’s lots of good tutors on YouTube who really teach the topic and it’s something you can watch and build up your mathematical skills and in turn, confidence. And Lucy, do you have any suggestions to follow on from that? Or maybe for the younger children as well?

Lucy Davis 39:13

I would say that yeah, following on from what you’ve said, you know, we live in a world now where there are videos and how-to tutorials on everything. And so actually, for parents, if they really do want to get to grasp, to grips with a certain subject, and they can’t quite work out how it is being taught, one is you don’t always have to know exactly how it’s taught. You could show them the method you know, because then your child again is increasing their depth of understanding. They’re trying Mr Hegarty’s method, they’re trying mum’s method, they’re trying dad’s method. And so if they try all three, they then get that, that set of tools that they can use to work out a certain mathematical problem or a mathematical concept. So I think that yes, all of these online things are your friend. And it makes it a lot easier now.

Look for maths in your everyday life

Lucy Davis 40:09

For younger children, I would say that it starts from a very young age, the point you made Colin about being out with your daughter and you’re looking at the colours, one of the big things we have suggested with little kids is you’re spotting shapes. When you’re out and about, you’re looking for maths in nature, you’re looking for maths in your everyday life. Maths isn’t just numbers, as we’ve said it’s space, shape, measure. And all of these concepts, it’s the language of maths.

From the youngest age possible, if you can make it playful and fun, and you can introduce the language of maths, and the concepts as games and activities, then, year by year, you as a parent and your children will add on these layers of understanding. So as they start to have mathematical concepts in primary and then on to secondary, they will have had that depth and those layers of knowledge, they will have had the chance to explore it hands-on with you as a parent.

We have parents in our sessions, sessions we run in libraries, that have said ‘Oh, really? Now I understand that’. And they’ve never understood it because it was taught just in an abstract way on paper. But when we got them there and doing things like making square numbers by putting the squares together to make a square – lightbulb moment.

But I would say use as many, from as young as possible, hands-on tactile activities and games. Make maths a part of your life, just as a fun thing. And then don’t be, don’t be backwards in saying ‘Oh, you know, that was maths you were doing’ so your children know that maths is everywhere, and it’s part of our everyday life. And that will build a maths fan, it will instil confidence in the child but also in the parent because they will start to learn things that maybe they didn’t understand the first time around. You can learn things with your child from every age from two, up to 12, up to 15. If you do it with your child, you will learn maths yourself as with any other subject or activity.

How can parents improve their own maths skills?

Colin Hegarty 42:29

Definitely. And there was actually a question just before in the chat, I just wanted to just slightly address it here because it’s linked. There was a parent that wrote in and said, ‘how can I improve my own maths skills? I used to do the SMP cards’ and essentially, I’ve seen that work in a school, the child goes up, collects the card, works on it independently, and the teacher marks it and they just feel that their maths skills are appalling. And have we got any advice to help them?

And what I would say to that, that’s, I think what might be quite helpful is a little bit like what we said earlier, a little-and-often practice for you might be really helpful in a structured way. So while YouTube’s really good, the problem with it is, is there’s so much. You don’t know where to start, you don’t know where it ends. Sometimes, because you talked about your experience with the SMP cards just being a little bit haphazard, maybe you need a little structure. So there are many places for that. We’ve got obviously Numerise, you could set yourself up an account there and work through the lessons in a very structured order. And it personalises for you.

There’s National Numeracy, they’ve got a lovely section on National Numeracy where the parents can go and do a little audit on themselves. And then do some follow-up work. There’s websites like Corbettmaths – he’s a fantastic guy. And you can work through in a very sequential order, little-and-often practice, you know the Japanese call it Kaizen. Do a little bit every day. Don’t, don’t try and solve maths over the weekend, do 20 minutes a day for six months, and that confidence will come and that skill set will come and bring a little bit of, maybe, process – to Anita’s point earlier – and structure to the situation. I think that might really help that parent who wrote in that question there.

Involving younger siblings in maths

There’s a question here that we’ve kind of alluded to, we’ve kind of talked about this, but I think it’s a, it’s a really specific one worth addressing, something I’m particularly interested in now that I’ve got two little daughters and trying to figure this out in the future, so I’m going to take copious notes.

So, one parent wrote in and said, we have a seven-year-old and a three-year-old. We focus a lot on the seven-year-old’s learning maths through everyday situations, but really struggle to involve our three-year-old in the process. I know we’ve kind of briefly alluded to that Lucy, but how do you go about managing having two and, you know, obviously the seven-year-old’s probably, you know, maybe it’s a bit easier in some ways to work with the seven-year-old but you’re trying to do two things at once – any suggestions for trying to get that three-year-old involved at the same time?

Lucy Davis 45:05

What I would say, and this is borne out by our experience at Maths on Toast, is that often many activities can be done at many levels. And especially if you do choose ones that, say, are around shape and construction, you can have the seven-year-old doing something where they’re taking it to the level that they can. But the three-year-old is just learning about the shapes, putting the shapes together. Tessellation is a perfect example of how shapes all fit together. Then a three-year-old can have shapes.

We have activities of this on Maths on Toast website, you can cut out the shapes, and the three-year-old can just be putting them together, and the seven-year-old will probably come up with a fantastic design. And so it’s finding things that and have, again, having the confidence to allow your child to explore it at their own pace.

Often, if you give a child an activity, you may think ‘Oh they’re not doing it right, you need to do it this way’. Well, no, let them explore and see what they come up with. And I would say that actually can be applied to a three-year-old as well as a seven-year-old. Of course, it is a lot harder. But if it is to do with creation, puzzles, games, putting things together, then these activities are the type of activities that three-year-olds will do in nursery, the kind of crafty construction. But if they’ve got a maths slant on them, then the three-year-old can be taking part in their own way, while the seven-year-old is perhaps taking the mathematical element further.

I would say look at nature a lot, look at activities around nature and it is counting shapes, spotting things, putting things together, building with them, but also just using that mathematical language ready to prepare them for when they go to school, and they, they will hear it. There’s maths, as we all know, in our everyday life, whatever you’re doing, if you’re baking, if you’re shopping, if you’re cutting things up, you can do easy dividing with children, portioning things out. And that’s something that a three-year-old and a seven-year-old, could both do at their different levels.

And of course, I would advise look on the Maths on Toast website because we try and make our activities so that they are, we call that high ceiling, so that a child who could run with it and really explore the maths can, but if another child wants to do it in a more basic and simple way, they can also do that.

How can parents motivate children who are easily distracted to study?

Colin Hegarty 47:46

Lovely. And Anita, just a question also that came in just before the, before the session here, it’s a little bit about study habits and how to try to help support children at home, because you’ve mentioned that before, but just to specifically call out the parent’s question here. It says ‘my child’s very laid back and I have to sit with him and study or else he gets distracted and doesn’t do anything.’ So any, any suggestions there in terms of the home setup, and how to encourage that young lad to do his study? But what the parent can do to help facilitate that.

Anita Cleare 48:26

I think there’s two points there for me. I really recommend having a study time, a set study time every evening. So that’s the time in the house, when all the distractions go off, you know, the telly is off, there’s no recreational screens, whatever children you’ve got, whatever homework they have or haven’t got, that is quiet time.

So you know, depending on their age, for a really young child, that might be 15 minutes. For a secondary school aged child, it might be 45 minutes, you know, if they’re coming up to exams, it might be an hour. But basically, once a day, at an appropriate time, the house goes quiet, and it’s study time and whatever studying, whatever homework there is to do, it gets done. It doesn’t matter if it’s due in a week’s time.

But what they do in that time is up to them. So, what we’re providing is the quiet, we’re providing a place to work, and we are facilitating this. But what we’re not doing is micromanaging what they do in that time. If they choose to sit and stare at their maths book and do nothing, then that’s a choice that they’ve made. And we have to be – allow them to learn through experience to learn by the fact that when I do that, I don’t get all my homework done. So after a few weeks of having done this, if you think but they’re not, they’re not doing this, my other big tip is talk to your child about it.

We don’t have to have all the solutions as parents. We often think this is our job to know all the answers. It isn’t. Sit down with them and say, ‘you know, I’ve noticed you really struggle to concentrate. You know, what – have you got any ideas?’ You know, do problem solving. We want to raise problem solvers. So model problem solving with your children when there’s a problem.

‘So, this is the problem. You know, you’re not really using your study time, you’re not managing to get all your work done. Have you got any ideas?’ Yeah, don’t you say this is the way it’s going to be. Say, ‘what are your ideas?’ You know, try and get them to come up with some solutions, try and get them to work through, well, ‘okay, so I get a bit distracted by my phone’, maybe that comes up. ‘Alright, so what could you do about that?’ Rather than, I think as children get older and go into the teenager years, rather than being authoritarian, and us saying, ‘well, this is the way it’s going to be’, we have to collaborate with them so that they’re learning to take responsibility for that themselves.

You say ‘okay, so the phone is causing you a problem, you struggle to concentrate. What’s your idea?’ And if they say, ‘okay, I’m fine, I can just put the phone over there, and I won’t look at it,’ you know, you can say, ‘well, in my opinion, that might not work for this reason, but you could try it for a week. Shall we see?’ Because they might surprise you. They might do that. And it might work. And because it’s their idea, then they’re invested in it.

But it might not work, in which case, you go back and you review and you say ‘okay, so you had that idea. We tried it. It doesn’t seem to have worked. What do you think? Have you got any other ideas? What else could we try?’ So actually model problem solving, exactly the problem solving that we want them to learn to apply to maths, model it in kind of all the life situations that you’re in, and ask them about that.

But again, you know, focus on providing an appropriate time, place and materials, and then allow them to learn a little bit through experience. We mustn’t be frightened of letting our children, you know, make mistakes. If we always rescue them from missing a homework or from getting it wrong, they won’t ever learn to take responsibility and we want to raise good learners. You know, when they get to A Level, when they want, you know if they, if that’s what they’re going to do, if they get into the workplace, nobody’s going to be, you know, parenting them. So we’ve got to transition and help them take responsibility in those, in those older years.

Colin Hegarty 52:28

Wow, such great advice from Lucy and Anita there. And just a quick reminder to the chat guys, if there’s any questions you want us to cover in the last few minutes there, anything that’s come out of what Lucy or has Anita said, anything you just want to dive deeper on, just write in the chat there and put a little question mark on the end, just to make sure we know that there’s a question from you and something for us to cover.

Is it possible to pass a maths GCSE when there’s only eight months left to learn?

Just one here for the, I think we’ve got a few youngsters in the house. So I can tell that from the chat. Some of you guys, I think Komal, might be, might have been using HegartyMaths and stuff. And there was a question beforehand. One of the young people asked, it looks like they’re doing their GCSE, they asked: is it possible for me to pass my maths GCSE within eight months left?

So, I just want to, maybe I’ll start off with this one, just want, particular for any of the, you know, the students going through, you know, an exam period or anything like that at the moment. Firstly, I’d like to say, yes, it’s possible.

So I always tell the children that I work with that it’s absolutely possible to achieve, to get better and to achieve great things in your life. But it’s, you need to have a belief that it’s possible. But on top of that, you have to back up that belief, you’ve got to take some action.

So if you’re in year 11, now, you know, you’re 15 years old, you got to take some action, there’s eight months left, you can, you can do a lot in eight months, human beings are amazing people when they put their mind to it.

So what I would, what I would suggest is, first thing is concentrate in class. You know, I know we’re going through a bit of a rough patch in the world at the moment, but every time the teacher’s teaching you, every little bit of practice they give you, every past paper they give you, absorb it, concentrate and do what they say. It’s not just about ‘what can I do outside class, I can do what I want inside class, and then I’ll fix it at home’. That’s not the way to do it. Eight months left, everything’s precious, every moment of your revision is precious. So use that time, listen to your expert teacher, do what they say and put some trust in them.

And secondly, I would, I’m really into the idea of practice changes humans. I think, if we commit to little-and-often practice, it can make a massive difference over time.

So the first thing is, eight months is a long time. Use that. Don’t be coming back to us, if we do another session in some months’ time, the same person saying is it possible to pass my GCSE in a month, start today, do little-and-often practice, do 20 minutes a day, make it a habit, make it a process, commit to it. It’s what you do. It is part of you.

And also obviously focused on those past papers, your teacher will have a lot of ideas on this. But one thing that students I used to teach used to do before I took the class over is they would say things like, ‘Oh sir, I did the past paper over summer, would you mark it for me? And I’d say ‘what, you didn’t mark it yourself?’ You’ve got to mark your work as you go along. You’ve got to reflect on the answers. You got to be thinking about how you’re doing, you got to be thinking were your workings right. So it’s not just good enough just doing questions. Check the questions, follow up. Ask your teacher when you start, see it right through to the end.

But of course, it’s possible, absolutely possible. But make a commitment today, don’t let, don’t wait ‘til next week to make the commitment or next month or five months. Make the commitment today, little-and-often practice can change your life in maths and can change your life in almost anything, if you want it to.

Any questions come in while I was going off on one there on how to revise in Year 11? A couple coming in here from maybe Anna and Laura.

Make maths practice a habit

Anita Cleare 56:26

I was just gonna say, Colin, that I think one of the reasons a homework routine is really important is because it develops that little-and-often habit. Because an awful lot of this is a habit. If you have a routine, where you do something every day, and you do a little bit of studying, it becomes a habit and a habit is much, much easier than having to try and do something every time. So you know, I do think parents can really help set up those routines to create the habit. So that’s one of the best things we can do.

Lucy Davis 57:00

I think I would add to that, the other thing is often for parents, when they talk about confidence in maths, or they don’t feel confident in maths, is actually give yourself credit where credit’s due. Most people in life are using maths all the time, and they don’t realise they are. And they’re managing all sorts of things.

I once had someone say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m no good at maths and I do all this stuff with Excel spreadsheets’, and I think, well, there you are, you’re using those maths and those systems. And so give yourself that credit. But if you don’t know how to do something, talk about it and share the experience with your children. Like the question that Colin you answered and I think actually sorry, Anita, you answered about someone who said their child won’t concentrate on their, on their homework, and they disengage. If it’s maths homework, then again, don’t deny, discuss, like we talked earlier. Probe a little bit more, there probably is a very valid reason as to why they’re struggling to engage with that.

So don’t pressure and say, ‘come on, you’ve got to do it quick, quick.’ Talk about it and find out what the problem is and explore. And if you model that yourself as a parent, ‘if you’ve got a problem we problem solve’, then your children, instead of freezing up and keeping it to themselves, will share and try and solve the problem and you can help them do that.

Colin Hegarty 58:22

Well that’s absolutely fantastic. So I think we’re closing in on, we’re just, we’re actually just past six o’clock so I was just gonna say firstly, thank you so much Lucy and Anita for sharing your vast wisdom here today, it was lovely to hear you. I’ve taken copious notes, which I will, I will keep this book forever, and make sure I refer to it as I become a more experienced dad as time goes by.

But and also thank you, everyone in the, in the session today who came along to talk about this really important topic. It was lovely to have you. Thanks for the questions that came in advance and thanks so much for participating in the chat.

Just a little bit of a wrap-up just to say that we recorded this session. So, you know, Anita and Lucy gave very specific advice at times about things you could do, that will be on the

So and you’ll be able to find this session again, if you want to relook at it or hear a particular piece again, if you missed anything. And along with that there’s other assets and other resources that, you know, Lucy and Anita have given us and some that Numerise made themselves where just things you can do as a parent with your child, things a child can do as well.

So we’d encourage you to go to just to have a relook at this session and find the other stuff, pretty much similar to what Lucy and Anita were talking about today. Some of these things you can do with your child and habits you can set up.

That was a lovely session. We’re really grateful. Thank you all for your time. And again, Lucy and Anita, thank you so much for being such a wonderful guest today and sharing all your wisdom.

Our expert panel


Colin Hegarty
Colin Hegarty

Colin is the founder of HegartyMaths and Education Director of Sparx and Numerise. He was the first in his family to attend university, gaining a first-class degree in Mathematics from Oxford University. Whilst teaching in a secondary school, Colin shared maths tutorial videos online in a bid to make maths accessible for everyone.

Following their success, he founded HegartyMaths – an online homework solution supporting those students who need extra help with maths, and provides them with a way to access life opportunities that they otherwise might not have even considered. HegartyMaths is now a part of the Sparx Family.

Colin was a Global Teacher Prize finalist in 2016 and was awarded the National Teacher of the Year award in 2015.


Anita Cleare MA AdvDip (Child Development)

Anita Cleare is a parenting speaker, writer and coach and Director of the Positive Parenting Project. Her award-nominated parenting blog Thinking Parenting has been listed in the Sunday Times Magazine as a must-read for parents. Anita’s book The Work/Parent Switch blends parenting theory with practical tips to show working parents how to use the bits of time left over when work is done to parent smartly and be the parent their child needs.

An accredited Triple P® parenting facilitator with an academic background in developmental psychology, Anita has been working with parents for 17 years. Before founding the Positive Parenting Project, she worked for a local authority children’s services managing specialist family support services including Sure Start children’s centres, parent helplines and intensive family support services.

You can read Anita’s blog at and follow her on Twitter (@thinking_parent) and Instagram (@anitacleare).


Lucy Davis

Lucy Davis is the CEO of Maths on Toast, the family maths charity. With a background in community engagement, community education and behaviour change, she has worked with a range of charities and voluntary organisations. Her experience of working at staff, volunteer and board level informs her approach to turning small actions into meaningful change.

Find out more about Maths on Toast at