Parents are generally the most important influence in shaping their children’s characters, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that they also affect their offsprings’ attitudes toward mathematics.
Researchers at the University of Chicago previously showed that students can learn math anxiety from math-anxious teachers, but their newest study demonstrates that mom and dad – or the child’s main caregivers – also have an impact.
Anxious Math Parents
Students whose parents were anxious about math learned less math than their peers during the school year, their study found. They were also more likely to have math anxiety themselves, but only if their parents helped them do their math homework.
“Notably, when parents reported helping with math homework less often, children’s math achievement and attitudes were not related to parents’ math anxiety,” the 2015 study’s lead author, Erin Maloney, and her co-authors wrote in their paper.
“We often don’t think about how important parents’ own attitudes are in determining their children’s academic achievement,” Professor Sian Beilock, a psychologist and another of the study’s authors, told the University of Chicago news service. “But our work suggests that if a parent is walking around saying ‘Oh, I don’t like math’ or ‘This stuff makes me nervous,’ kids pick up on this messaging and it affects their success.”
What the Research on Math Anxiety Tells Us
The research team focused their study on Grade 1 and 2 students. They the parents or main caregivers for 438 students to fill in a questionnaire at the start of the school year and again at the end. The survey posed various questions about their anxiety regarding math and ascertained how often parents assisted their children with homework.
The students were also assessed at the beginning and end of the year for math anxiety, as well as for math achievement and – as a control – reading achievement. Reading prowess was not affected by math anxiety.
This study built on an earlier study conducted by Beilock and U of Chicago colleagues. Their 2012 research showed that children express anxiety about doing math as early as Grade 1 by disrupting their working memory. If not addressed, it’s an issue that can follow them throughout their lives.
Interestingly, math anxiety often harms the highest achieving students who have the most potential to succeed in mathematics. It may put them as much as half a year behind their less anxious counterparts. Children are very perceptive and may even pick up on anxiety about simple processes like addition and subtraction.
“Early math anxiety may lead to a snowball effect that exerts an increasing cost on math achievement by changing students’ attitudes and motivational approaches towards math, increasing math avoidance, and ultimately reducing math competence,” Beilock wrote in the study.
The Impact of New Ways of Learning
Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor who has studied homework, told the New York Times that parental math anxiety increases whenever schools introduce new ways of learning math.
“Educators can’t take math, turn it into Greek, and say, ‘Mom, Dad, will you help your kid with this,’ and not expect to get a ‘wha?’ ” he said.
The researchers indicate that the situation isn’t hopeless. Parents can improve their own comfort with math or learn to conceal their anxiety. They need to prepare, however, before working with their children.
How Parents Can Help
“We can’t just tell parents—especially those who are anxious about math—‘Get involved,’” Maloney told the university news service. “We need to develop better tools to teach parents how to most effectively help their children with math.”
The available tools include math books, computer and traditional board games, or Internet apps Parents can also enlist online math tutoring to assist their children. Highlighting their own use of math in daily life is another good tactic: count your change out loud or compare prices in a grocery store.
Parents also shouldn’t worry if they can’t figure out their child’s math problems. There’s nothing wrong with suggesting that the child get extra help from the teacher.
What About Math Tests
When it’s test time, Beilock suggests that students can help corral their anxiety using a technique called expressive writing. By writing about their math anxieties for about 10 minutes prior to a test, students can help to minimize their impact on working memory, reduce their anxiety and perhaps realize that their worries aren’t as important as they originally believed. Younger students can be encouraged to draw pictures as an alternative.
Even something as simple as taking deep breaths before diving into the test can be beneficial. When students actually focused on the task at hand, rather than thinking about it, their brains were able to do their job.