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Math anxiety is real.. and parents and teachers don’t always help

A report from the University of Cambridge is describing the nature and resolution of so-called “mathematics anxiety” among young students. The review suggests that parents and teachers may unknowingly play a role in the development of the condition, and that girls are more prone to this type of anxiety than boys.

“While every child’s maths anxiety may be different, with unique origins and triggers, we found several common issues among both the primary and secondary school students that we interviewed,” said study lead author Dr. Denes Szucs.

Research focused on 1,000 Italian students found that girls had higher levels of both general anxiety and maths anxiety. A separate analysis in the UK demonstrated that children generally expected math to be difficult, leading to a loss of confidence.

When students discussed the role that their teachers and parents played in their maths anxiety, primary-aged children often said they were confused by different teaching methods. Many secondary students implied that a difficult transition from primary school made the work seem harder and contributed to their maths anxiety. This group also referred to poor interpersonal relations.

A study published in 2018 showed that 77 percent of children with high maths anxiety are normal to high achievers on maths tests.

“Because these children perform well at tests, their maths anxiety is at high risk of going unnoticed by their teachers and parents, who may only look at performance but not at emotional factors,” said study first author Dr. Amy Devine. “But their anxiety may keep these students away from STEM fields for life when in fact they would be perfectly able to perform well in these fields.”

The researchers at Cambridge have included a number of recommendations in the report. For example, they recommend that teachers become more aware of maths anxiety and its effect on individual performance.

“Teachers, parents, brothers and sisters and classmates can all play a role in shaping a child’s maths anxiety,” said study co-author Dr. Ros McLellan. “Parents and teachers should also be mindful of how they may unwittingly contribute to a child’s maths anxiety. Tackling their own anxieties and belief systems in maths might be the first step to helping their children or students.”

According to the experts, maths anxiety is often present at a young age but also may develop as the child grows.

“Our findings should be of real concern for educators. We should be tackling the problem of maths anxiety now to enable these young people to stop feeling anxious about learning mathematics and give them the opportunity to flourish,” said Dr. Szucs. “If we can improve a student’s experience within their maths lessons, we can help lessen their maths anxiety, and in turn this may increase their overall maths performance.”

The report was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the James S. McDonnell Foundation.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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