Parental Math Anxiety Can Sabotage Kids' Own Learning

New research discovers a person’s math anxiety may have been influenced by their parents’ similar math struggles.

A study led by University of Chicago psychological scientists Drs. Sian Beilock and Susan Levine found that children of math-anxious parents learned less math over the school year and were more likely to be math-anxious themselves, but only when their parents provided frequent help on the child’s math homework.

The study appears in the journal Psychological Science. Lead study author Dr. Erin A. Maloney is a postdoctoral scholar in psychology at University of Chicago. Graduate student Gerardo Ramirez and Elizabeth A. Gunderson, Ph.D., co-authored the article, along with senior authors Levine and Beilock.

Prior research from this group discovered that when teachers are anxious about math, their students learn less math during the school year.

The new study builds on the concept of instructor anxiety yet is novel in that it establishes a link between parents’ and children’s math anxiety. These findings suggest that adults’ attitudes toward math can play an important role in children’s math achievement.

“We often don’t think about how important parents’ own attitudes are in determining their children’s academic achievement. 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,” said Beilock.

“Math-anxious parents may be less effective in explaining math concepts to children, and may not respond well when children make a mistake or solve a problem in a novel way,” added Levine.

Four hundred and thirty-eight first- and second-grade students and their primary caregivers participated in the study. Children were assessed in math achievement and math anxiety at both the beginning and end of the school year.

As a control, the team also assessed reading achievement, which they found was not related to parents’ math anxiety.

Parents completed a questionnaire about their own nervousness and anxiety around math and how often they helped their children with math homework.

The researchers believe the link between parents’ math anxiety and children’s math performance stems more from math attitudes than genetics.

Researchers believe the environmental observation of a parent’s anxiety translates into a similar fretfulness in the child.

“Although it is possible that there is a genetic component to math anxiety,” the researchers wrote, “the fact that parents’ math anxiety negatively affected children only when they frequently helped them with math homework points to the need for interventions focused on both decreasing parents’ math anxiety and scaffolding their skills in homework help.”

If you are a parent and have math anxiety, not all is lost as appropriate groundwork can resolve many of a parents fears.

“We can’t just tell parents — especially those who are anxious about math — ‘Get involved,'” Maloney explained.

“We need to develop better tools to teach parents how to most effectively help their children with math.” These tools might include math books, computer and traditional board games, or Internet apps that “allow parents to interact with their children around math in positive ways,” the researchers wrote.

Source: Association for Psychological Science
Parent helping child with his homework photo by shutterstock.