How Parents’ Math Anxiety Can Affect Kids’ Achievement


Parents who fear math may easily pass that anxiety on to their children. (Photo: Corbis)

“Numbers scare me.” “I’m not a math person.” “I hate math.” If you’re one of the many parents who have been known to make such pronouncements, you might consider biting your tongue next time, as a new study has found that parental math anxieties are often passed on to kids.

“What surprised us the most is that when parents are trying to help with math … it can actually backfire,” lead author Erin Maloney, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago, tells Yahoo Parenting. “It can happen even though their efforts can be incredibly well-intentioned.”

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The team of researchers, led by University of Chicago scientists Sian Beilock and Susan Levine, looked at nearly 450 first- and second-graders and their caregivers. They found that the kids of math-anxious parents learned less math throughout the school year and were more likely to have math anxiety themselves — but only if they often received parental help on arithmetic homework. The team’s findings were published Monday in the journal Psychological Science.

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Their previous research discovered that students learn less in math when they have teachers with math anxiety, and now parents are added to that equation. “There is research showing a genetic link as well,” Maloney says. “But now there’s also a socialization link.”

Math anxiety is common — one in five people report experiencing it on some level — and while the behavior of parents who frequently sound off about their hatred of reading and writing would likely rub off on their kids, too, that would be a less likely scenario. “What’s interesting about math is that it’s socially acceptable to say things like, ‘I hate math,’” Maloney notes. “But you wouldn’t hear people bragging about how they’re bad at reading.”

In addition to it being acceptable to talk about being numbers-challenged, there are stereotypes at play — particularly gender-based ones, about how girls are bad at math (the subject of some recent T-shirt controversies). Plus, math can be a difficult skill to master. “Math is very cognitively demanding — it requires working memory and the ability to manipulate information in your mind,” Maloney says. “So it can be very challenging and make people quite nervous.”

Is the solution for parents to run out and enroll in math classes, as Britney Spears reportedly did to help her sons earlier this year? Perhaps, as classes such as “How to Learn Math: For Teachers and Parents” are popping up around the country. The class is offered by Stanford University mathematics professor and YouCubed founder Jo Boaler, who aims to raise levels of student engagement, particularly among girls and students of color.

But specific strategies for parents to follow are still being researched, Maloney explains. “We can’t just tell parents — especially those who are anxious about math — ‘Get involved.’ We need to develop better tools to teach parents how to most effectively help their children with math.” Those might include math books, games, or apps that “allow parents to interact with their children around math in positive ways,” the study suggests.

You might start by just checking in with your child’s teacher in order to familiarize yourself with new teaching techniques and strategies that may look unfamiliar to you, suggests Maloney. And most importantly, she says, be aware of what you say about your own math fear around your children and try to avoid “perpetuating any negative stereotypes about math, gender-based or otherwise.”

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