• Comprehensive Math Instruction Coach

    Misty Rocha

     Math Anxiety Is Contagious!

                In this New York Times article, Jan Hoffman reports on a study in Psychological Science of how parents’ math anxiety is picked up by their first and second graders, pulling down the kids’ school achievement in math (but not in reading). The means of transmission? Parents helping their children with math homework. The study found that the more math-phobic parents helped, the worse their children did, slipping more than a third of a grade level behind classmates and becoming math-anxious themselves. “The parents are not out to sabotage their kids,” says Sian Beilock, one of the authors of the University of Chicago study. “But they have to ensure their input is productive. They need to have awareness of their own math anxiety and that what they say is important… Saying, ‘I’m not a math person either, and that’s O.K.’ is not a good message to convey.”

                How does math anxiety work in the brain? According to Mark Ashcraft of the University of Nevada/Las Vegas, “On challenging math problems that require a lot of working memory, math-anxious people fall apart.” Their working memory is tied up with worries “and they don’t have enough left over to do the math.” The anxiety most often kicks in when students encounter middle-school algebra, but it can begin earlier, especially for girls who have math-anxious female elementary school teachers.

                One thing that increases parental math anxiety is the introduction of new math curriculum materials that take an approach to basic operations that’s radically different from what they learned in school. “Educators can’t take math, turn it into Greek, and say, ‘Mom, Dad, will you help your kid with this,’ and not expect to get a ‘Wha?’”, says Harris Cooper of Duke University. An Idaho mother went on Facebook to complain about how Common Core math standards were driving her to drink. “I’ve taken to labeling math homework by how many glasses of wine it takes to peel myself off the ceiling after I’m done,” she said. “That was a two-glasser after whatever it is we’re calling long division.”

                What can white-knuckle math parents do to reduce the negative effect they’re having? One approach is to create a math-positive environment and model “math behavior,” says Cooper. “You have your math homework, and I have mine” – counting change, calculating when dinner will be ready, and looking at prices in the supermarket. Another approach is to tag-team with a more math-confident spouse. And then there’s consulting with the teacher, looking over curriculum manuals, and actually mastering the math.


    “Generations of Math Fears” by Jan Hoffman in The New York Times, August 25, 2015,

    http://nyti.ms/1Evsrxn; the study described in this article, “Intergenerational Effects of Parents’ Math Anxiety on Children’s Math Achievement and Anxiety” by Erin Maloney, Gerardo Ramirez, Elizabeth Gunderson, Susan Levine, and Sian Beilock in Psychological Science, August 7, 2015, is available for purchase at http://bit.ly/1KyDk2g

Last Modified on October 27, 2015