Parents’ math anxiety can rub off on kids

"If a parent is walking around saying 'Oh, I don't like math' or 'This stuff makes me nervous,' kids pick up on this messaging and it affects their success," says Sian Beilock. (Credit: Rob Baird/Flickr)

Children of math-anxious parents learn less math during the course of a school year and are more likely to be math-anxious themselves—but only if mom or dad repeatedly try to help them with homework.

Previous research has shown that when teachers are anxious about math, their students learn less math during the school year. The new study is the first to establish a link between parents’ and children’s math anxiety. The findings suggest that adults’ attitudes can play an important role in children’s achievement.

“We often don’t think about how important parents’ own attitudes are in determining their children’s academic achievement,” says Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. “But our work suggests that if a parent is walking around saying ‘Oh, I don’t like math’ or ‘This stuff makes me nervous,’ kids pick up on this messaging and it affects their success.”

“Math-anxious parents may be less effective in explaining concepts to children, and may not respond well when children make a mistake or solve a problem in a novel way,” adds Susan Levine, professor of education and society in psychology.

Tools for parents

For the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, 438 first- and second-grade students were assessed in math achievement and anxiety at both the beginning and end of the school year. As a control, the team also assessed reading achievement, which they found was not related to parents’ math anxiety.

Parents completed a questionnaire about their own nervousness and anxiety around math and how often they helped their children with math homework. The link between parents’ math anxiety and children’s math performance stems more from math attitudes than genetics, the researchers believe.

“Although it is possible that there is a genetic component to math anxiety, the fact that parents’ math anxiety negatively affected children only when they frequently helped them with math homework points to the need for interventions focused on both decreasing parents’ math anxiety and scaffolding their skills in homework help.”


The findings suggest that parent preparation is essential to effective math homework help. “We can’t just tell parents—especially those who are anxious about math—’Get involved,'” says lead author Erin A. Maloney, a postdoctoral scholar in psychology. “We need to develop better tools to teach parents how to most effectively help their children with math.”

These tools might include math books, computer and traditional board games, or internet apps that “allow parents to interact with their children around math in positive ways,” the researchers write.

The US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and the NSF Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center funded the research.

Source: University of Chicago