Parents and Teachers Pass On Math Anxiety to Kids Like a Virus, Especially to Girls

“Why do smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math?” laments Petra Bonfert-Taylor, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College. “Few people would consider proudly announcing that they are bad at writing or reading.” After seeing one too many examples of adults “passing on [mathematical anxiety] like a virus,” Bonfert-Taylor has an important message for math-phobic parents and educators: “We are passing on from generation to generation the phobia for mathematics… [and] as a result, too many of us have lost the ability to examine a real-world problem, translate it into numbers, solve the problem and interpret the solution.”

Many people will recognize what Bonfert-Taylor calls “damaging myths” that adults perpetuate when they call themselves bad at math: “math is inherently hard, only geniuses understand it, we never liked math in the first place and nobody needs math anyway.” And while well-meaning adults may think they’re encouraging kids by sharing their own math fears, research has shown the opposite — “Anxiety over mathematics has been recognized as a grade killer.” Research has found that the problem is particularly significant for girls, who “are especially affected when a teacher publicly announces math hatred before she picks up the chalk.” Moreover, as Bonfert-Taylor explains in a Washington Post article: “A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that female — but not male — mathematical achievement was diminished in response to a female teacher’s mathematical anxiety. The effect was correlated: the higher a teacher’s anxiety, the lower the scores.”

Parents’ anxiety about math can have a similar effect on kids’ achievement and their attitude toward the subject. According to Bonfert-Taylor, “children who received math homework help from mathematically fearful parents showed weaker math achievements than their peers, which in turn resulted in increased math anxiety for the children themselves.” New research on math anxiety confirms that these parents unintentionally teach kids to expect that math will be beyond their capabilities. As Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College, explains in an NPR piece, “A parent might say, ‘oh I’m not a math person, it’s okay if you’re not good at math either’… [which] can send a signal to kids about whether they can succeed.”

Fortunately, Beilock’s research has found a surprisingly easy way for parents to stop passing on math anxiety and build their children’s math confidence — and it doesn’t require overcoming their own fear of the subject. For the study, researchers gave Chicago-area families an iPad filled with math-themed stories for parents and children to read together. From first to third grade — the years when children tend to solidify their fear of math — the families read stories that included fun math facts, like the size of the world’s largest cupcake or information about walking frogs, and then kids would answer simple questions about the content. By the end of the first year, parents didn’t feel more confident in their own abilities with math, but they did feel more confident in their kids’ math potential — and equally importantly, they valued math skills more. This had a direct effect on their children’s achievement: when the kids’ math skills were tested at the end of the study, children of math-anxious parents who had participated in the program performed just as well as the kids of math-confident parents.

The most important finding from the study for parents is the importance of normalizing math at home in a way that’s relaxed and playful. While Beilock’s research used math-themed books and stories, there are many other ways to do it, from playing with math games and toys to cooking together. Bonfert-Taylor agrees, arguing that we need to teach kids that “working on mathematical skills is not unlike practicing a sport. Neither can be learned by watching others perform the activity and both require encouragement and effort… You do not need an innate mathematical ability in order to solve mathematical problems. Rather, what is required is perseverance, a willingness to take risks and feeling safe to make mistakes.” So the next time you’re sitting down to talk math with a Mighty Girl in your life, Bonfert-Taylor urges you to “try to have fun and give reassurance that perseverance will yield results. Numbers are always simple, clean and beautiful — and nothing to be afraid of.”

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