Parents’ Maths Anxiety can Undermine Children

Research led by University of Chicago

If the thought of a maths test makes you break out in a cold sweat, Mom or Dad may be partly to blame, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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

Lead study author Erin A. Maloney is a postdoctoral scholar in psychology at UChicago. Gerardo Ramirez and Elizabeth A. Gunderson co-authored the article, along with senior authors Levine and Beilock.

Previous research from this group has established that when teachers are anxious about maths, their students learn less maths during the school year. The current study is novel in that it establishes a link between parents’ and children’s maths anxiety. These findings suggest that adults’ attitudes toward maths can play an important role in children’s maths 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 maths’ or ‘This stuff makes me nervous,’ kids pick up on this messaging and it affects their success,” explained Beilock, professor in psychology.

“Maths-anxious parents may be less effective in explaining maths concepts to children, and may not respond well when children make a mistake or solve a problem in a novel way,” added Levine, the Rebecca Anne Boylan Professor of Education and Society in Psychology.

Four hundred and thirty-eight first- and second-grade students and their primary caregivers participated in the study. Children were assessed in maths achievement and maths 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’ maths anxiety.

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

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

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

Maloney said the study suggests that parent preparation is essential to effective maths homework help. “We can’t just tell parents–especially those who are anxious about maths–‘Get involved,'” Maloney explained. “We need to develop better tools to teach parents how to most effectively help their children with maths.”

These tools might include maths books, computer and traditional board games, or Internet apps that “allow parents to interact with their children around maths in positive ways,” the researchers wrote.

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