Parents’ math anxiety can ‘infect’ kids

Mom and dad can pass on their fear of mathematics when they help a child with homework

An adult’s math anxiety can prove contagious, a new study finds.

If parents are uncomfortable with math, they should not let that show when they help a child with homework. The reason: An adult’s math anxiety can prove contagious, a new study finds.

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Cover your mouth when you cough, wash your hands … don’t say bad things about math? Psychology researchers have known for years that a fear of math can be contagious. They’ve shown that children can pick up negative attitudes about math from teachers. Now they’ve found another source of “math anxiety”: parents.

Researchers studied 438 first- and second-graders and their families. Before a school year started, the researchers asked parents or other caregivers to fill out a survey. It asked them to rate how anxious they would feel in different situations involving math — like reading a cash register receipt or studying for a math test. They also assessed their children’s math ability and math anxiety. This was done at both the beginning and end of a school year.

Kids whose parents were anxious about math learned less math over the school year, the new study found. What’s more, these kids also were more likely to become nervous about math themselves. But they only “caught” that anxiety if their parents had frequently tried to help with their homework.

The results appeared August 7 in the journal Psychological Science.

This is an example of good intentions having a bad payoff, notes Mark Ashcraft. He’s a psychology researcher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was not involved with the study. “Inadvertently,” he says, “when [those parents are] trying to help with homework, they’re conveying their own bad attitudes about math to their children.”

Those children also seemed to learn less math in school. Kids whose parents were anxious about math — and who had helped them with their homework — did not perform as well on the tests as did those who had not been exposed to math anxiety.

Erin Maloney, who led the new study, works at the University of Chicago in Illinois. As someone who has personally experienced math anxiety, she’s sympathetic to the parents and their kids. “I was always very nervous about math, not only taking tests, but also learning new concepts. I really tried to avoid math,” she says. It was only after she studied statistics in graduate school and saw how it could be applied to her passion — psychology — that she started to enjoy math.

Parents with math anxiety shouldn’t avoid supporting their kids as they work on math assignments, though. Instead, she says, they should look for ways to have fun with math, like playing math-based games. And if parents feel unsure about their own abilities, they should avoid talking about it. They instead should try to put a positive spin on math.

Helping kids with schoolwork requires more than just going over facts and concepts, Maloney notes. “It’s also attitude,” she says. And their attitude, she says, can have a surprisingly big impact.

Ashcraft says that if parents can’t figure out a math problem, they shouldn’t get frustrated or embarrassed. Rather, they should help their kids plan questions to ask their teachers.

What can students do if they’re already nervous about math? Maloney suggests they perform a simple writing exercise. An earlier study showed that students who wrote about their fears for 7 to 10 minutes before taking a test performed better on that test. Writing down their feelings helped the kids work through their concerns. In the process, many concluded that those concerns weren’t such a big deal after all. “It really works,” she says.

Power Words

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anxiety     A nervous disorder causing excessive uneasiness or fear about something that has not yet taken place. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.           

contagion     A disease that can be spread by direct contact with an infected individual or the germs they spread into the air, their clothes or their environment. Such diseases are referred to as contagious.

content     (noun) The material comprises something (like the contents of a box) or the words, subjects covered and ideas contained in an entire document.

graduate school  Programs at a university that offer advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or PhD degree. It’s called graduate school because it is started only after someone has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

psychology  The study of the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior. Scientists and mental-health professionals who work in this field are known as psychologists.

statistics  The practice or science of collecting and analyzing numerical data in large quantities and interpreting their meaning. Much of this work involves reducing errors that might be attributable to random variation. A professional who works in this field is called a statistician.

survey  (in statistics) A questionnaire that samples the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region.

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