Why Kids Take On Adults’ Math Anxiety

| October 21, 2013 | 31 Comments
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We know a lot about how relationships can enhance learning. We learn better when we “apprentice” ourselves to someone more knowledgeable, for example; when we ourselves teach others; and when we discuss and debate with our peers.

But there are also times when relationships suppress learning. This is the case when parents and teachers—figures of towering importance in the world of children—pass on negative views about particular academic subjects. This passing-on is not deliberate, of course. No parent or teacher would wish to impart feelings of anxiety or aversion regarding learning. And yet that’s often just what happens, according to Elizabeth Gunderson, a researcher at the University of Chicago.

Gunderson and her colleagues recently published an article in the journal Sex Roles that examined the “adult-to-child transmission” of attitudes about learning—in particular, how mothers’ unease with mathematics may be passed down to their daughters. Parents’ “own personal feelings about math are likely to influence the messages they convey about math to their children,” Gunderson notes—and kids will readily recognize if these feelings are negative. Becoming aware of our anxiety is the first step toward stopping such transmission in its tracks.

The more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely the girls in their classes were to endorse negative stereotypes about females’ math ability.

Previous studies have looked at how parents’ stereotypes (“boys are better at math, and girls are better at reading”) and expectations (for example, holding sons’ academic performance to a higher standard than daughters’) affect their children’s orientation toward learning. Gunderson takes a different tack, suggesting that parents may influence their offspring’s attitudes in two more subtle ways: through their own anxiety, and through their own belief that abilities are fixed and can’t be improved (expressed in commonly-heard comments like “I’ve never been good at science,” and “I can’t do math to save my life”).

Research shows that school-aged children are especially apt to emulate the attitudes and behaviors of the same-sex parent—a source of concern if we want to improve girls’ still-lagging performance in traditionally male-dominated fields like science and mathematics. If mom hates math, a young girl may reason, it’s O.K. for me to dislike it too.

[RELATED: Girls and Math: Busting the Stereotype]

Teachers aren’t immune to negative feelings about learning, either. In fact, studies show that undergraduates who study elementary education have the highest math anxiety of any college major. Instructors who are uncomfortable with mathematics feel less capable teaching the subject, research indicates, and are less motivated to try new and innovative teaching strategies. A study by cognitive psychologist Sian Beilock, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science in 2010, demonstrates how teachers’ unease with math can influence the students in their classrooms.

Beilock and her coauthors evaluated 52 boys and 65 girls enrolled in first and second grade and taught by 17 different teachers. At the beginning of the school year, there was no connection between the students’ math ability and their teachers’ math anxiety. By the end of the year, however, a dismaying relationship had emerged: the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely the girls in their classes were to endorse negative stereotypes about females’ math ability, and the more poorly these girls did on a test of math achievement.

Adults who want to avoid passing on pessimistic attitudes about learning can do more than simply watch their language (no more “I’m hopeless at math” when the dinner check arrives at the table). They can jump into the subject they once feared with both feet, using their children’s education as an opportunity to brush up on their own basic skills. Learn along with your kids, and you may find that math and science, or writing and spelling, are not so scary. And let kids know that it’s always possible to change and improve our abilities—you being a prime example.

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  • deserteacher

    I believe this transference of math anxiety is an unintended consequence of the development of math instruction of the last two decades. How about developing a parent online program to catch families up on current math instruction? That’s one good idea.

    • Jane

      Or better yet, how about we toss the current math instruction and go back to something that 1) is understood by teachers and parents and 2) cuts through the clutter and simply builds math confidence and competence.

      • Matthew Leingang

        Much easier said than done, but I think we’re going in that direction. The Common Core State Standards for math were designed by expert math teachers and by expert mathematicians, and I think are a pretty decent starting point. They include not only standards of content but standards of practice, the first of which is: perseverance in solving difficult problems. So building confidence is part of the new curriculum.

        • Jane

          I would not be so quick to defend Common Core-aligned math. Our local school has used Pearson’s Investigations for the past several years. It is CC-aligned and it builds confusion instead of confidence or competence. Perhaps building confidence is part of other CC-aligned math lessons, but the Pearson powerhouse doesn’t do the job.

        • Joe McDonald

          Common Core is a step in the same wrong direction we have been traveling for 30 years. for example, they add about 40% more material in Alg I than I taught 25 years ago. We had a hard time covering all of it then.

          The curriculum is a mile wide and one inch deep.The result is most students really never master anything. We used to spend several weeks on factor. Now factoring is covered in 2 or 3 sections.

          • Math Teacher

            Common core is not a curriculum.

      • math teacher

        I’m not sure why we embrace the mathematics of old. I hear time and again how much people hated mathematics in school and fear the thought of being asked to do a word problem. Though I want our students to understand numbers and be able to compute, I also want them to reason mathematically and not merely survive their time in school with mathematics.

        • Jane

          Because, whether they liked it or not, they learned it and developed at least some level of proficiency at it — hopefully enough so that they can figure out percentages or keep themselves from being cheated. Frankly learning something that is challenging builds character and a sense of accomplishment. Reasoning mathematically is a noble goal, sadly these new math programs don’t do that either.

          • Math Teacher

            They may have developed some level of proficiency, but not enough to solve a problem like how much mortgage can I afford? Remember the housing crisis? I’m sorry, but I disagree with you. The old way is the wrong way. Students need to reason and problem solve. Not only compute. We have calculators everywhere to do our long division and long multiplication for us.

          • http://www.stpetersburgcounseling.org/ John Gregorio Wood II

            I agree with you. You are definitely right that students need to reason and solve problems to prepare them for the real world.

    • Matthew Leingang

      You might try the book “Math for Moms and Dads” by Suzanne Beilinson.

    • guest

      how about parents try out Khan Academy topics that parallel their children’s classes?

      • http://marknoldy.com/ Mark Noldy

        That’s a great site for parents needing a refresher. Unfortunately too many say things like, “I can’t help Junior with math. It’s so different.” (Last time I checked 2+2 is still 4.)

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  • Coach

    As an instructional coach, I’ve seen the anxiety by educators first hand. Sometimes it is very apparent as the teacher says “I know, I know. I never liked fractions, either,” or never smiles or gets excited about math learning with the students. Or unintentional examples where a worksheet is giving out day after day after day…with 30 algorithms on a page…all in isolation, because the teacher thinks of math only in this frame of mind. Don’t get me started on “I was never good at math,” a statement from more than one teacher in my last dozen years as a coach. Or in a classroom in 6th grade where a teacher has to teach all subjects, gets to math, says “With all of the other subjects, I have no time to plan for this class. I just open up the math book (extremely outdated and full of algorithms) and pick pages to do.” (Showed in the lesson.) Or how about just skipping any math on special event days, but ALWAYS doing “DEAR.” I’m very much a proponent of departmentalizing instruction at the elementary level, so mathematics is taught by a skilled and passionate teacher who promotes mathematics to children and parents AND understands or strives to understand how children learn mathematics from an early age. Continual professional development on mathematics will help educators reflect on the cues they give off to students. Administrators also need to put more emphasis on understanding mathematical needs.

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  • Bev

    I taught with another math teacher who would rant and rave about “If I hear another parent tell me “I’m not good at math, hehehe” I think I will punch them.” I now understand after teaching math for 26 years as the main content as well as the math of science. Worse yet is having a principal tell you “get those math scores up” but then any new and innovative way of playing with numbers is frowned upon since we have such low math test scores. . .ARGH!

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  • http://www.ipracticemath.com/ Learn

    I think are a pretty decent starting point. They include not only standards of content but standards of practice and the first Worksheet of which is: perseverance in solving difficult problems. So building confidence is part of the new curriculum. Frankly learning something that is challenging builds character and a sense of accomplishment. Reasoning mathematically is a noble goal, sadly these new math programs don’t do that either.

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  • http://www.anchorcounseling.com/ Tommy Voyd

    This is a very good reminder for parents to be more responsible in dealing with their fears or anxieties so it won’t be emulated by their kids.