Sunday, October 25, 2015

Are you a parent with math anxiety?

Math is a very important skill. Regardless of whether you became an engineer, basic math skills are essential to modern daily life. At the very least, we all have budgets to manage and we all have to calculate the amount of time it will take us to get to and from the places we do and don't want to go. Despite the ubiquity of numbers and math in daily life, there is always a spike in anxiety when the bill needs to be divided up after a large dinner with friends because lots of people get anxious when they have to do math. Some psychologists are interested in where that anxiety comes from, and how to prevent it. 

In particular, Dr. Erin Maloney at the University of Chicago recently conducted a large study to discern whether parents' math anxiety contributes to developing math anxiety in kids. This is important for us to consider because math performance early in grade school is a robust predictor of long-term education outcomes. 

To do this, she and her colleagues recruited 438 1st and 2nd graders and their parents from 90 classrooms and 29 public and private schools in the Midwest. During the first 12 weeks and the final 8 weeks of the school year, the kids completed standardized math and reading tests, and questionnaires about math anxiety. Questions about math anxiety included items such as how nervous they would feel doing mental math problems or solving a math problem on the board in front of their teacher and peers. During the middle of the school year, the children's parents also completed questions about math anxiety, including items about how nervous they feel when "reading a cash register receipt after you buy something." Parents were also asked to report how often they help their child with math homework on a 7-point scale (1 = never  to 7 = more than once a day). 

They found that parents with high math anxiety who also reported helping their kids with math homework most often had kids with lower math achievement scores at the end of the year. This effect was independent of kids' math scores at the beginning of the year, gender, grade, school- and teacher-related factors. The same association was not found between parent math anxiety and reading scores, suggesting that the effect is specific to math skills. What was also interesting, was that this association between high parent math anxiety, more homework help and math achievement scores predicted increases in the child's math anxiety between the beginning and end of the school year. 

So, what does this mean? It potentially means that children develop math anxiety partially through exposure to their parents' math anxiety while helping them with homework. A dangerous conclusion that could be drawn from this is that parents with math anxiety should not help their children with math homework. While it used to be common for school to explicitly prohibit parents from providing extra instruction on coursework at home (click here to learn some more about history of education in the U.S), this custom has lang since changed. Instead, this may be just one more way untreated problems with anxiety can have unnecessarily long-term consequences. There are very effective ways of treating anxiety, such as CBT. More importantly, avoiding anxiety is the worst possible way to deal with anxiety. It is also prudent to consider the potential third variables that contribute to these findings. Perhaps genetic vulnerability to anxiety is playing a role in both the math anxiety of the parent and the child. Perhaps intelligence, also genetically heritable, is playing a role. Perhaps parents who have time to help their children with their homework also spend more time with their kids in general, and factors that contribute to a parent being more available to the child in general are driving these effects, for example income, occupation, personality. 

Needless to say, this study gives us some guidance about which children may be at risk for early problems with math, and therefore a place to start preventing those problems. 

Maloney, E. A., Ramirez, G., Gunderson, E. A., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2015). Intergenerational effects of parents’ math anxiety on children’s math achievement and anxiety. Psychological Science, 0956797615592630.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Get the next post via email:

Believe in our mission too?