Math Anxiety in Young Kids

How parents' own math anxiety hurts with homework – and what to do.

The apple doesn’t fall far when it comes to kids inheriting freckles or a sweet tooth. But parents might not count on passing on their anxiety about math – and this one can’t be blamed on genetics.

New research says subtle cues given by parents about math homework can impact kids’ long-term success in the subject. Parents who feel uneasy about equations or Common Core might actually do best to step aside on those assignments, notes a study of first and second graders by the University of Chicago. It found kids of “math anxious” parents learned significantly less math and had more anxiety by the end of the year – if parents reported frequently helping with homework.

Does this scenario sounds familiar? Here’s some help.

Don’t say, ‘I hate math’

Tom Maes, math curriculum coordinator for Ferndale Public Schools, says it all lines up with what he experienced in his 23 years teaching.

“Thinking back to the parent-teacher conferences where parents would say, ‘I hate math’ and ‘I don’t like math,’ it doesn’t surprise me,” he says. “I think that parents getting frustrated and anxious, that definitely kids can feel that.”

So for starters? Avoid making negative statements. “Do not tell your student you hate math. Encourage that hard work will pay off. That’s a good message.”

Embrace new methods

Parental math anxiety may be exacerbated as moms and dads try to make sense of the unfamiliar math strategies their kids are bringing home these days.

“One of the first things we frequently have to tell parents is that we’re teaching math differently than how you learned it,” Maes says, pointing out an increased focus on understanding vs. memorization. “That’s a huge shift.”

Support and encourage

A parent’s role is to “support and encourage” kids on assignments rather than find the answers, Maes says. “Homework is independent work,” he says. “Parents shouldn’t have to help with every problem. If they need to, then I think the parent needs to contact the teacher to find out how they can better help the student.”

Know when to break

Make sure your child understands some struggle is good. You might say, “I think if we stay with it, we’ll get it,” Maes suggests. “Saying ‘I don’t think this is worth your time’ or ‘This is stupid’ – those kinds of things really tend to turn the students off or give (them) an excuse for not being successful.”

But if your child is getting frustrated with his homework, it’s time to take a break. Put it away and plan to contact the teacher for guidance.

“If a student is getting frustrated, that’s just going to lead to their own anxiety,” Maes says. “Homework should never lead to frustration, and that’s at any level.”

Ask the teacher

While tutors can be beneficial, it’s best to start with the teacher if your child is struggling and you aren’t sure how to help.

“Pick up the phone or send an email,” Maes says. Most math curricula offer parental components, he adds. If you don’t have access to a parent resource for your child’s math instruction, ask the teacher if anything is available.

Also, keep in mind tutors can even hurt if they aren’t following the same methods the teacher is using – same with siblings or another adult.

Understand the impact

Fostering a positive attitude about math early is key. “What we see so often is that once a student picks up some math anxiety, there’s no going back,” he says. “It’s not like we can overcome the anxiety in first grade. Once that student feels anxious about math, it’s very, very difficult to pull them back to feeling comfortable.”


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