Overcoming maths anxiety: how parents can help

Overcoming maths anxiety: how parents can help

Early maths skills are critically important to a child’s future achievements, with research showing that children who start behind rarely catch up with their peers.

Maths skills not only help children perform well in maths but also affect their abilities in a number of other subjects, as maths helps with the development of higher order thinking and reasoning abilities. And yet, despite (or maybe because of) its importance, many students suffer from ‘maths anxiety’. This blog explores this issue, and how parents can help their child overcome it…

What is Maths Anxiety?

Maths anxiety is a negative emotional reaction to maths; it can make someone panic or feel helpless when confronted with a mathematical problem. Maths anxiety is becoming an increasingly big problem in the UK, with a recent poll showing that 23% of parents reported that their eldest child becomes anxious when attempting to solve a mathematical problem.

Extensive research with over 1700 primary and secondary school students has found that maths anxiety often stems from students finding the subject harder than others, which subsequently leads to a lack of confidence. Girls were more likely to suffer from maths anxiety, despite no significant differences in their maths ability. A possible reason for this may be due to gender stereotypes that society has reinforced. The researchers also found that, although present from a young age, maths anxiety continues to develop as a student grows older.

Can Parents Also Suffer From Maths Anxiety?

Parents can also suffer from maths anxiety and demonstrate a negative emotional reaction to maths and feel helpless and panicked about it. One interesting study found that children who had help with their homework by their maths anxious parents performed significantly worse than those who had been helped by non-anxious parents. Therefore, it is crucial that research is used to find ways to intervene early to stop parents’ maths anxiety from affecting their children’s future academic performance.

How Can We Reduce the Negative Effects of Parents’ Maths Anxiety?

Recent research looked to investigate whether a simple intervention could remove the impact of high levels of parent maths anxiety on a child’s academic performance. In this study, families were placed in one of two groups: those in the intervention group were instructed to use an app similar to Bedtime Math, whereas those in the control group used a reading app. Both groups, received a daily problem, which involved reading a passage and answering five maths or reading questions that progressed in difficulty.

They found that using the maths app decreased the negative relationship between parents’ maths anxiety and their child’s maths achievement. It was also found that, even when families decreased their use of the app after year 1, the positive impact of this intervention were still prominent two years later.

These results show that interventions which provide structured ways to engage with and share maths with their children can stop parents’ maths anxiety’s negative effect on maths achievement. The impact of these interventions could be huge: young children with maths anxious parents have learnt 5 fewer months of maths, effects which are equivalent to half a school year.

How Else Can Parents Help Their Children Achieve in Maths?

Encourage a Growth Mindset

When parents see their child struggling with maths, they often feel inclined to comfort them using phrases such as “I wasn’t good at maths either. No one in our family is”. However, this installs a fixed mindset; the child can come to believe that they cannot improve or succeed in maths despite their efforts, which subsequently leads to a lack of motivation. Research has shown that the comments children hear at just 1-3 years old are influential, as they can predict whether or not a child will have a growth or fixed mindset 5 years later.

For more research and information on the benefits of a maths growth mindset, click here.

Combine High Expectations With Lots of Support

Recent research has shown the important role that parents have in shaping how their child comes to see themselves. High parental expectations often lead to increased academic success, as children use this belief from their parents as motivator, to encourage them to work hard and overcome setbacks. However, high parental expectations need to be coupled with support, which allows a child to develop resilience and not feel isolated when they are struggling.

Final Thought

Parental attitudes towards maths can have a huge impact on how a child fares at school. This is why it is so important to pay attention to the research around simple interventions that provide structured ways for parents and their children to engage with maths. Given that it is such an important subject, we can’t afford to have a generation of students believing that they are ‘not a maths person’.

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