Study finds parents can give their kids anxiety about math

As you sit there trying to calculate that grocery bill or balance your checkbook in your head in frustration as your children watch, you may be giving them their own anxiety about doing math.

A new study in the journal Psychological Science by researchers at the University of Chicago finds that "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."

Young boy working on his class homework sitting at a table in front of a window writing in a notebook; Shutterstock ID 222985963; PO: math-anxiety-kids-schoolwork-homework-today-stock-tease-150819; Client: TODAY Digital Math anxiety can be passed from parents to children when the adult attempts to help with homework.

The research, led by Erin A. Maloney, also finds that if a parent has anxiety about math, it might be best for him or her to steer clear of helping a child with math homework.

The study found that the less parents with math anxiety helped their children with homework, the less the child's achievement was tied to the parents' anxiety about math. Essentially, a parent's own nervousness about doing math can be transmitted to their child and result in low achievement and the child's own anxiety about math.

The attitudes toward math of more than 400 students in first and second grade were analyzed in the study, with the children's math skills being tested at the beginning of the year and at the end while being asked how nervous they were in taking the tests. Researchers also asked how much anxiety being called on by a teacher produced. Parents were also surveyed about how much they were involved in their children's math homework over the course of the school year and how much anxiety they had themselves about doing math.

Kids who had parents with math anxiety who helped them frequently with their homework had lower test scores and reported higher anxiety than kids whose math-anxious parents were not as involved in helping them or kids with parents that had little anxiety about math, the study found. That means when parents show frustration or nervousness while doing math, kids as young as first grade will pick up on it and internalize it to cause their own struggles. The researchers suggest that maybe it's best to have a tutor or someone else handle that chore.