Math anxiety affects 2 million children, but new research suggests a way to help kids not only worry less about math, but learn to love it. [Image credit: Wikimedia Commons User Wallpoper]
Children are not born afraid of math, they learn to fear it — sometimes as early as age six. In fact, half of all children in the U.S. suffer from math anxiety: the crippling fear of math. This is particularly pronounced in girls, especially when they have math-anxious female teachers. Parents are a big part of the problem, too: a recent study showed that when math-anxious parents help with math homework, they pass on their fears to boys and girls.
But two new research findings give reason for hope. A study on a free app called Bedtime Math, recently published in the journal Science, showed that turning math into an everyday, fun activity improved children’s performance, even if they had math-anxious parents. The study looked for correlations between the math performance of 587 children and how often they used the app, which provides fun math problems for parents and their kids to do together before bed. It found that the more often the app was used, the more math the kids learned in school.
Similar success in reversing math anxiety was seen in another recent study, conducted at the Stanford Neuroscience Institute and published in the Journal of Neuroscience. The Stanford researchers took MRI scans of the brains of 46 children before and after eight weeks of one-on-one math tutoring. At each session, the kids would review prior math, learn a new skill, and play a math game. Before the tutoring began, the scans showed a correlation between doing math problems and activity in circuits associated with fear in the brains of math-anxious kids. At the end of the study, the associations had disappeared.
Though the evidence in both studies is indirect — correlation is not causation, after all — the research suggests that exposing kids and parents to non-threatening, fun math may be the key to reversing their phobia. While its application to math phobia has not been well studied, exposure therapy, in which a patient goes with a therapist into a controlled environment and interacts with the object of their fear, has been used in classic phobia therapy since the 1950s. Math exposure is more abstract, but the basics—a safe environment, an expert, and regular exposure—are all the same.
Previous research has found that when math-anxious parents do math with their kids, the kids develop the phobia as well. The Bedtime Math study appears to contradict this, but the app is different from the typical school homework that parents and children often struggle through together. Like the games in the Stanford one-on-one tutoring, it creates a math interaction that doesn’t bring expectations like grades into the equation.
By reducing social pressure, both Bedtime Math and one-on-one tutoring make math personal and non-stressful. Since math anxiety is made worse by the pressure of performing in front of peers, doing math in a private setting builds up positive associations, especially when the math is fun and a part of everyday life.
So whether you’re a kid or a parent, today’s lesson is: Don’t stress your math anxiety, and instead go have some fun with math — in private, with someone you love.