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How To Raise A Math Genius (Even If You Are Math Anxious)

 Math anxiety is real. If you are suffering from it, then even by just reading this sentence might evoke a physiological response, such as your heart beating a bit faster, or your mouth feeling dry. 


Why is this happening, or what is the root cause of math anxiety? Could it be that you had an experience where math made you feel less smart? If so, you are not alone.

In a study published by the American Psychological Association, giving college students a timed task to solve a very simple problem, such as “what is 34 -19,” triggered emotional stress and doubts about one’s overall intelligence. In the U.S., approximately 50% of adults are math anxious. This means that about 50% of people do worse in math simply because it makes them nervous.

Does Being a Math-Anxious Parent Matter?

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The authors of a 2015 University of Chicago study revealed that parents could pass down their own math attitudes. In fact, their findings included a shocking revelation. According to the study, “when parents are more math anxious, their children learn significantly less math over the school year and have more math anxiety by the school year’s end—but only if math-anxious parents report providing frequent help with math homework.”

In other words, by helping their kids with their math homework, math anxious parents were hurting their kids’ performance.

Can Math Anxiety Short-Circuit Your (and Your Kid’s) Brain?

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So what exactly are math anxious parents passing on to their kids? According to Mark Ashcroft, a professor at Cleveland University, it has to do with the way anxiety affects memory.

The research included a few fascinating findings. The first revealed that there is hardly any correlation between math anxiety and intelligence -- smart people can be just as susceptible to math anxiety as their less intelligent peers. In the second, he found that math anxious people made twice as many errors in higher-level math tests as their non-anxious peers.  

Professor Ashcroft believes that math anxiety works in a particular manner, such as math anxiety short circuits short-term working memory.  We rely on short-term working memory for pretty much any complicated math problem beyond the basic addition and subtraction problems. Short-term working memory is critical for math problems that involve carrying, borrowing, and keeping track of formulas.  

New Research Offers Math-Anxious Parents Solutions

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While math anxiety is contagious if not handled well by parents, recent research provides simple methods for not passing it on. According to Talia Berkowitz and Marjorie Schaeffer at the University of Chicago, the key is more “number talk” with young kids and structured positive interactions.  

Berkowitz and her University of Chicago colleagues ran a randomized field experiment among 587 first graders. In the experiment, one group of families used an iPad app called “Bedtime Math” throughout one school year. The app provides math problems to children in a story-like format while a control group used matching reading scenarios, but with the focused changed to reading literacy instead of math.

On average, kids whose parents used the Bedtime Math app tested 3 months ahead of their control group peers. Surprisingly, the children of math-anxious parents saw the biggest improvements, testing 6 months ahead of their control group peers in math skills. Using the app just once a week was enough to bring significant improvements to this group, with a few times a week seeming optimal.

--- “The children of math-anxious parents saw the biggest improvements, testing 6 months ahead of their control group peers in math skills.” ----

Berkowitz hypothesizes that she and her fellow researchers found the most improvement among the children of math-anxious parents because they had the most to gain from more high-quality math talk in the home. Quality does matter.  Professor Berkowitz believes that the Bedtime Math app (which also comes in book form) was particularly effective because it doesn’t include music, noise, or other distractions frequently found in other educational apps.

The Secret to Raising Math Positive Kids

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When Jean Bernish learned her young son showed promise in math, her reaction wasn’t all positive. As a writer and a self-described “math-not”, she worried about her own aptitude. “I was no mathematician. I was overwhelmed.” However, despite her own math anxiety, she made math a matter-of-fact part of her son’s life by incorporating math into their conversations and engaging him in activities like math origami.  

Since “number talk” at home is a key predictor of children’s later math performance at school, experts encourage starting early and doing it often.  Annie Murphy Paul, author of the forthcoming book, “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart”, suggests some simple ways to include number talk in children’s lives.

For example, as part of casual conversation, parents can mention how many minutes it might take to reach a destination, the exact degrees change in the weather from the prior day, or ask their children to count their toys and other objects.

Remarkably, the research on math anxious parents shows that anxious parents don’t have to become math experts themselves. As Professor Berkowitz has noted, parents have been encouraged to promote reading literacy with children, but math has been missing from that conversation. Luckily, science is on the parents’ side. Adding a few high quality and friendly math-positive interventions to your child’s routine can make all the difference.

Remember Jean Bernish, the “math-not” mom who went about creating a math positive childhood for her son? That same son is heading to John’s Hopkins University to major in math and physics.  

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Erin A. Maloney, Gerardo Ramirez, Elizabeth A. Gunderson, Susan C. Levine, Sian L. Beilock. Intergenerational Effects of Parents’ Math Anxiety on Children’s Math Achievement and Anxiety. Psychological Science. September 2015. vol. 26 issue 9 1480-1488.

Mark H. Ashcraft. Math Anxiety: Personal, Educational, and Cognitive Consequences. Department of Psychology, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. 181-185.

Susie Allen. Math story time at home bolsters achievement in school. UChicago News. OCTOBER 8, 2015. http://bit.ly/1o7CD7u


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