Math fears make 1st graders anxious

NYU (US) — As early as first grade, children can develop math anxiety and that fear can cause kids to have headaches, stomachaches, and faster heartbeats.

That fear also can affect academic performance down the road, a new study finds.

“Math anxiety hasn’t really been looked at in children in early elementary grades,” says Rose Vukovic, professor of teaching and learning at New York University.  “The general consensus is that math anxiety doesn’t affect children much before fourth grade. My research indicates that math anxiety does in fact affect children as early as first grade.”


Vukovic’s first study which will be published in the Journal of Experimental Education explored mathematics anxiety in a sample of ethnically and linguistically diverse first graders in Title 1 New York City schools. Many first grade students do experience negative feelings and worry related to math that affects their performance when it comes to solving problems in standard arithmetic notation.

The second study, published in the Journal of Contemporary Educational Psychology, builds on the first. Looking closely at second graders in Title 1 New York City schools, Vukovic sought to determine if and how math anxiety affects math performance in second grade and into third grade.

“This time around, we wanted to look at what types of math skills are most impacted by math anxiety and if it affects student performance in future grades as well,” Vukovic says. “We examined performance in math applications, geometric reasoning, and numerical computation.”

Math applications include word problems or interpretations of graphs and charts. Geometric reasoning includes analyzing, describing, and classifying two-and-three dimensional objects. Grade-level addition and subtraction are considered computation.

Anxiety in second graders affected computations and math applications. Additionally, children with higher levels of math anxiety in second grade learned less math in third grade.

“Students are walking into classrooms at five and six years old saying that they aren’t good at math before they’ve even stepped into a math classroom. Kids are picking up from the environment that math is something to be afraid of,” Vukovic says.

Parents can help ease the effects of their children’s math anxiety by holding high expectations for learning which are more important than helping children with their homework or other forms of parental involvement.

“Parents, teachers, and schools play an incredibly important role in combating the factors that put children at risk for poor performance, especially in under-resourced communities and communities of color.

“Given the push for increased standards—Common Core—we must identify and implement appropriate support for these younger children so they aren’t coming in anxious, behind the curve, and staying behind.”

Source: New York University

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