Whispering away maths anxiety

Reading time: 3 minutes. Relevant programme: SSAT Lead Practitioner Accreditation

Henri Yeoman (née Plag), head of maths at Thornaby Academy and SSAT Lead Practitioner writes

On hearing the term ‘horse whispering’ in relation to strategies to use in maths education, most people recall their most tricky student and wonder how they may blow into their noses. This thankfully is not required here. Instead we are going to consider basic strategies of horse whispering and how we can apply them to help students who suffer from maths anxiety.

Horse whispering is based on fulfilling the horse’s basic need of having a good herd leader that will keep the individual horse safe. As teachers, we have a similar role. Horse whispering consists of three basic aspects:

  1. Setting up a comfort zone
  2. Allowing free choice (or appearing to do so)
  3. Rewarding the right choices.

Setting up a comfort zone

For the horse this means setting up a comfort zone for them around us. They may not encroach on our personal space, but must (incorrectly) feel free to leave as they wish. With careful planning this results in the horse adopting us as its herd leader, choosing to follow our instruction, since it wants to be ‘in our club’.

As a fairly new maths teacher I quickly realised that students with maths anxiety do not feel that they belong to ‘the maths club’. Instead they feel that everyone in this club simply knows things they will never know. I decided that if I could communicate with a horse in such a way as to make it choose to be in my ‘club’, it should be possible to do the same with my maths students.

How could we set up a comfort zone in our maths classroom? For me it is about exploring a student’s view of the world, fulfilling their need to learn, as well as finding relevant applications for the maths taught. For this it is essential to have personal conversations with every student, setting up a culture of ‘we’re all learners’.

I myself have poor working and short-term memory, so I decided to use Steve Chinn’s tests of both types of memory in my classes, publicly measuring my own memories (Chinn, S. 2012). I expected to and came out about average for each class, which caused great excitement among the students. It facilitated discussions on what good or poor memories might mean, as well as how these may be affected by noise.

I further set a up a growth mindset culture, using Jo Boaler’s week of inspirational maths at the beginning of the academic year. This was using Dweck’s idea that adopting a growth mindset has a positive effect on learning (Dweck, C. 2012). It was important to me that every student became aware of their own learning needs and styles, to enable them to find strategies which would work for them as individuals.

Allowing free choice

Allowing free choice, or at least appearing to do so: horses are animals of flight, so it is essential that they do not feel restrained, for them to be able to learn. An example of this is always holding the lead rope very loosely.

For our learners this free choice is allowing them to choose the degree of difficulty of the work done. This is policed in the background, but in my experience only rarely needs adjustments. The most likely adjustment needed is students choosing work which is too easy and then commenting that it was too easy. I always comment on this and explain the need of challenge for learning to take place. This is a culture that can take time to set up, but teaches resilience and supports students who are struggling to make sense of new concepts.

Another way of allowing free choice is to use daily reflection by students. My students all complete a ‘what went well, even better if’ type of self-reflection at the end of every lesson. Again, this can take time to become a habit. We make the connection that thinking in detail about what has been learned in the lesson helps to set up the connections in the brain and supports retention.

This reflection is followed by a written response by the teacher after every lesson. This is not as time consuming as many think, often only taking 10 minutes per full class. Research has shown that confidential self-reflection is far more accurate and therefore effective than public shows of self-assessment (Cambridge Mathematics, 2017). My approach goes further, in that I encourage students to write me messages in their books about their work. Many do this, and it often opens a useful dialogue with individual students. In addition it is highly informative for my short-term planning. If most of the class indicate they need more time on a topic, this is accommodated; if only individual students need more time, support can be given while the others are working on a starter task at the beginning of the next lesson.

Figure 1 Student self-reflection, initial response

Where previously I would have been faced with books full of ticks, I now have very clear indications of how my students feel about their work. My feedback most often is only in the form of ‘I agree’ or a more individual comment relating to their progress. The response by the teacher after every lesson is very important to students, making them feel appreciated and safe, since they can easily note down any concerns they have. It counteracts that feeling of ‘not being in the club’ of mathematicians.

Figure 2 Student self-reflection, final response

I help my students to explore their own need for repetition, therefore enabling them to find strategies for their own learning. This process also involves making all students aware of the value of making mistakes. Many students who lack confidence in their maths ability have a good grasp of concepts but continually make ‘silly number mistakes’ which then make them feel that they ‘just don’t get it’. It is often highly liberating for these to realise the type of mistakes they are making. Calling them ‘silly number mistakes’ initially identifies them as of less concern. Later on, however, when confidence has improved, the need for accurate number skills is highlighted.

Rewarding the right choices

With horses this must be done within a fifth of a second to their right choice, or they do not connect the reward to the choice made.

In maths education, too, correctly timed application of reward equally has a significant impact on progress. I point out improvements in progress to my students, whenever I notice them, particularly after tests, even if the test mark has not improved. Anxious students need help to identify what they are doing well.

Linking lack of progress in tests to short-term and working memory also allows me to enable students to develop strategies. It creates a distance between their own identity as mathematicians and their ability to store and recall facts. Students with severe anxiety benefit greatly from teachers noticing and pointing out tiny aspects of good practice, allowing them to build up a picture of ‘what they can do’.

In conclusion, horse whispering techniques allow us to help anxious maths students to find their place in the ‘maths club’, reflecting on what works for them and building strategies to enable them to progress more easily.


  • Boaler, J. ‘Youcubed’, https://www.youcubed.org/ website accessed Sept 2017.
  • Cambridge Mathematics (2017) ‘How does assessing confidence affect learning and testing in mathematics’, Espresso, Issue 2, December 2016. Cambridge Mathematics, UK.
  • Chinn, S J. (2012) More Trouble with Maths, Routledge, Abingdon.
  • Dweck, C S. (2012) Mindset. Robinson, Great Britain.

Further information about SSAT Lead Practitioner Accreditation

Read on the SSAT blog: The new maths GCSE: fresh approach includes problem solving

Henri Yeoman, Head of Maths, Thornaby Academy and SSAT Lead Practitioner

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