Parents’ beliefs are contagious
Studies have shown that parents who express anxiety while helping their children with math reduce their children’s performance in first and second grades. When mothers informed their daughters that they were not good at math, the daughters’ work in the subject declined.
It’s not just the parents
Female teachers’ math anxiety has been shown to negatively affects girls’ math achievement. In one study, the more anxious the female elementary school teachers were, the more likely the girls in their classes became infected with the stereotype that girls were not good at math – and the girls’ math performance was impacted in a measurable way. The boys in their classes were unaffected.
So how can parents help their children learn math more easily?
If you struggled with math or have had anxiety, refrain from expressing it to your child. Talk positively about how math (even simple computations) helps you in your daily life today. Praise all efforts and perseverance with their homework, even when they don’t arrive at the right answer at times. If you’re a mother who has a daughter, let her know you are confident in her ability to achieve in math.
Parents can foster positive attitudes about math by stressing that math is a just a subject learned by practice and persistence. There is no such thing as a “math person” and anyone can learn math. Making mistakes is just a healthy part of that process – not proof of any lack of ability or intelligence. In fact, making mistakes in math has been shown on MRI scans to make a person’s brain grow. There is no race or gender that has any special advantage when doing math, those stereotypes are totally wrong.
Parents can help their kids learn math by encouraging them to play math enrichment games and do puzzles to develop number sense. Visuals like board games are especially helpful for developing a child’s understanding of math concepts. Spatial skills – the comprehension and recall of the spatial relations between objects – are closely related to math skills. Studies have shown that kids benefited immediately after playing a number line game similar to Snakes and Ladders and a visual model of the positive and negative number line helped kids intuitively understand how negative numbers work. The more kids play games and have fun with numbers, the less math anxiety and the more confidence they will have exploring math.
Every kid learns differently, but all kids love games. The best way to learn is to play.
Why is math anxiety a problem?
Math anxiety affects math performance. Math anxiety can have a disruptive effect on working memory, which is needed to attack math problems. When a child is preoccupied with fearful and apprehensive thoughts, their brain is not fully focused on the challenging task at hand, putting them at a distinct disadvantage that affects their learning. This is particularly common when children are given timed tests.
Higher level math will be a lot more important to the next generation. American students, at a minimum, generally have to take 10 years of math classes to achieve a high school diploma – the least amount of education needed to get even an unskilled job in today’s job market. Lack of confidence in math leads students to avoid certain careers because completion of high level math is needed for entry. This doesn’t only apply to the obvious scientific occupations, many college business programs actually require two semesters of calculus.
As time goes on, STEM careers will become a much larger part of the economy. The working world will be transformed in radical ways in short periods of time. For example, driver-less cars could make taxi drivers and truck drivers obsolete within ten years. Uber and similar companies are already making full time taxi driving a thing of the past. Today’s kids will need a solid foundation in the STEM subjects to prepare them for a job market we can’t even imagine today.