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Here’s Where Your Kid’s Math Anxiety Actually Comes From

Math-phobic parents can pass that anxiety onto their children. But starting early, starting simple, and making it part of everyday talk can help.

Photo: David Trotman-Wilkins/Chicago Tribune

As a parent, I want my child to be happy, unafraid, and to have the things I didn’t growing up. All that comes together with the subject of math, which made me unhappy, fearful, and dead-ended at precalculus. My math SAT score was a couple hundred points lower than my verbal SAT score; I bombed my college math placement test.

My daughter will enter school with a couple strikes against her—a father with math anxiety, and still-pervasive stereotypes about girls in STEM fields, something that’s quickly and blessedly changing but, perhaps, not soon enough for her.

That’s why I’ve been interested in the work of Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and an expert in anxiety, an area of expertise that inevitably led her to math anxiety.

“When I started doing work in the classroom, there was this interesting phenomenon relating to students’ performance: math anxiety,” Beilock says. “You don’t often hear people bragging, ‘oh, I’m not a reading person,’ or ‘I can’t read.’ But it seemed really socially acceptable to talk that way about math, and that was intriguing.”

And something that should be familiar to many. Many of us have memories of getting anxious when math got complicated in high school, but Beilock went all the way back to the start of school, and found it there as well.

“There’d been a lot of research suggesting that it was elementary or middle school, but we started doing work at the start of elementary school, first graders for example, and we noticed that some of them professed to be anxious about math. So we tested this idea—maybe even at the start of formal schooling, some students had anxiety about doing math,” Beilock says. “And we’ve done work now showing that’s the case, that it’s indeed related to math performance, and what they learn across the school year. And we’ve now started to ask questions about where that math anxiety comes from, and how parents and teachers think and perform in math.”

Not only can that anxiety affect math performance, it has stronger effects on the students who could be very good at the subject. “People who you would think of as having the most cognitive horsepower are actually the most affected by being in these high-stakes situations,” she says. “We find this for older students, and even for first graders.”

Where does this anxiety come from? Worrisomely, for people like me, from the adults around them. Beilock and colleagues have found that math anxiety can be passed down from math-anxious parents and learned from math-anxious teachers. That pervasive stereotype that girls aren’t as good at math as boys affects performance as well.

“Just putting people in situations where they’re faced with these stereotypes about why they shouldn’t perform well is anxiety-provoking,” Beilock says.

What to do? Start early, start simple—think of it like a bedtime story. In her most recent research, Beilock, Susan Levine, and their colleagues had hundreds of parents use a free, off-the-shelf app called Bedtime Math and, well, do some bedtime math. It worked, even for the children of parents with math anxiety.

But there’s probably nothing magic about the app. Similar to Dana Suskind’s research into reading, talking, and language, Beilock thinks the key is engagement and exposure. “The iPad is a really great vehicle to get this information to parents to use with their kids,” Beilock says. "But my hunch is that what is really moving the needle is just parents interacting with their kids and just talking about math.”

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