Square Root of Kids’ Math Anxiety: Their Parents’ Help

preschool math, primary school maths, secondary school maths, children

Square Root of Kids’ Math Anxiety: Their Parents’ Help

Are parents transmitting math anxiety to their children somehow?

Jan Hoffman wrote an article on results of a new study stating math anxiety is contagious between parent and child. And the irony? This is transmitted via homework assistance.

Children of highly math-anxious parents learned less math and were more likely to develop math anxiety themselves. This is enhanced when their parents provided frequent help on math homework, according to a study of first- and second-graders, published in Psychological Science.

Researchers tested 438 children from 29 public and private schools in three Midwestern states for math ability as well as math anxiety, at the beginning and end of the school year. Their parents completed questionnaires about math anxiety, and about how often they helped their children with homework.

So much for good intentions. The more the math-anxious parents tried to work with their children, the worse their children did in math, slipping more than a third of a grade level behind their peers. And the children’s weaker math achievements increased their nascent math anxiety.

“The parents are not out to sabotage their kids,” said Sian L. Beilock, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Chicago. “But we have to ensure their input is productive. They need to have an awareness of their own math anxiety and that what you say is important.”

For example, she said, comforting a homework-distressed child, by saying, “ ‘I’m not a math person either, and that’s O.K.,’ is not a good message to convey.”

The research results come as no surprise to Jennifer Hare, who has a third grader and a sixth grader, and two more on the school runway. In college, Mrs. Hare, a daughter of math-anxious parents, switched majors just to avoid required math courses.

An exhausted soccer mom, she is still determined to help her math-challenged, math-anxious children. To hide her grimaces as she stares at quasi-algebraic word problems, she holds a piece of paper in front of her face. That does not fool them at all — maybe because she says she sometimes bursts out: “‘What are these teachers thinking? Are they nuts?’”

Math anxiety feeds upon itself

Mark H. Ashcraft, an expert on math anxiety at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said, “On challenging math problems that require a lot of working memory, math-anxious people fall apart. Their working memory is consumed by worry and anxiety, and they don’t have enough left over to do the math.”

Many adults identify secondary school algebra as the onset of math anxiety. Research has shown that it can begin earlier. But the effect of math-anxious, homework-helping parents is a newly discovered factor.

Parental math anxiety is exacerbated whenever schools introduce new methods of learning math, said Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, who has studied the effects of homework.

A small comfort: The homework-helping, math-anxious parents did not have a negative effect on their children’s reading ability, the new study said.

How can math-anxious parents help their children at math? Dr. Cooper suggests that parents of young children create a math-positive environment by modelling “math behaviour.” The game plan: Tell your child, “‘You have your math homework, and I have mine,’” he said, and show them whenever you “count your change, calculate when dinner will be ready, look at prices in a grocery store.”

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