A new study has found that parents who help their school children with their math homework and are themselves anxious about the subject can pass on their anxiety to their kids. The study, published in the August issue of Psychological Science, was conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago.
Using as subjects 438 students in grades 1 and 2, and their parents, from 29 schools, both public and private, the study collected data at the beginning and end of a school year. Part of that collection of data included having parents fill out questionnaires in which they were asked how much they helped their children with math homework. Parents were also asked to rate their level of anxiety when it came to doing math.
The results? Numbers showed that the more math anxiety a parent doing the homework with their child had the more likely the child was to themselves develop anxiety around math. And the more a math-anxious parent helped their child, the farther that child’s math grades slipped. All the way down to less than one-third of the grades kids with non math-anxious parents attained.
“It’s not just a genetic connection,” one of the study authors, Canadian Erin Maloney, a student at the University, told CBC News. “But there’s also some socialization that’s going on as well that can affect the child’s anxiety.”
New approach to math
Obviously that adds up to math-anxious parents doing more harm than good. But Maloney says that a better approach is attainable. Rather than scrunching up your face and saying a question is hard or ridiculous or whining “what is this darn teacher thinking” the advice Maloney gives is to not show anxiety and to be more positive.
So what might be a more positive approach? The post-doctoral student advises that saying something along the lines of “If you work really hard, you’ll get it” or “we’ll figure this out” is a better choice. That’s because those words indicate to the child that she is capable of doing it and that it is not something to be anxious about.
In other words, let ’em know it’s just math and that it can be done and it might even be fun. That last bit might be a stretch, but you get the drift.
And finally here’s some words of advice from Prof. Mark H. Ashcraft, a math anxiety expert – yes, there are such people – at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Prof. Ashcraft told the New York Times that math-anxious people waste energy that could be used to solve a problem on worrying about how they won’t be able to solve the problem.
In essence he said it is best to keep a stiff upper math-lip and get on with it, exhibiting as much confidence as you can. Which sounds like the math version of ‘don’t worry, be happy.’
So does that add up?