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3 Ways Parents Can Support Their Children’s Math Development — and Soothe Their Own Math Anxiety

By Kate Stringer | April 24, 2018

Calculating a tip requires simple math, but the process can leave many adults so uncomfortable that they can’t do it without the help of a calculator.

Researchers refer to this feeling as math anxiety. A review of 60 years of research on the subject shows that adults and children alike experience a fear of math that can interfere with their ability to perform and cause them to avoid math-related careers. A recent survey of 400 teachers who participated in a MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge organized by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics found that 68 percent of those teachers believe the biggest hurdle to their students’ math success is confidence.

That’s a problem, as parental support of their children’s math skills is critical to learning. Not only can math anxiety interfere with parents’ ability to help children with homework, but researchers found that students perform worse in math if their parents have high levels of math anxiety.

Still, it’s very important for parents to get involved in their children’s math education, said Julianne Herts, a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago who studies math anxiety. “Parents think math is the purview of school, whereas they think reading is a shared responsibility, but we know that the quantity and quality of math input in the home is really important for children’s math achievement later on,” Herts said.

Research has shown that students’ math skills before they enter school are the greatest predictor of future achievement in math class, even more than early reading skills are predictive of later reading achievement. That makes the role of parents as teachers all the more essential. Here’s a handful of research-backed ways that parents can create an environment where math is commonplace — and fun.

Math ASAP: Tips for early learners

When it comes to early learners, it’s important to teach math as soon as possible, said Beth Casey, research professor at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education.

“Having a sense of confidence … is one of the key ways of not feeling so anxious about math,” Casey said.

Parents should teach their young children not only to count but also to understand quantities, such as by asking them to say how many objects are in a group. Casey’s research found that children as young as 3 years old who received this kind of coaching from their parents performed better in preschool and first grade than those who did not. Start with a group of three pennies, she said, and have children say how many are in the group. Show them that by taking away or adding a penny, the group becomes smaller or larger.

Bring math up as often as possible, Casey said, to make it commonplace. Count quantities of food at the grocery store, toys at playtime, or cars while driving.

It’s also important for parents to step in if their child makes a mistake in math. For example, if a child says 8 plus 3 is 10, a parent can ask what 8 plus 2 is. This type of correction allows the child to solve the problem, Casey said, rather than just being told the right or wrong answer.

If a child becomes frustrated or upset, back up and focus on what the child does know before adding new ideas, she said.

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Parent Hacks: Reducing your own math anxiety

Math anxiety is like an oxygen mask on an airplane: You can’t help others unless you help yourself first. For parents who struggle with math anxiety, there are solutions to help adults decrease their discomfort.

One way is to write. A study found that people who wrote about their anxious feelings before a test improved their overall score, because writing helped to disrupt their negative thought patterns.

Other research has found that anxiety can help improve performance, but only if the worrier believes that it is a powerful tool for success.

“Chill out, make math something fun, and embed it in everyday life so when it comes up, it’s not a stressful thing,” Herts said. “Don’t let the idea of anxiety add more anxiety.”

Tools to help kids get comfortable with math

Incorporating math into everyday activities rather than just helping with homework improves children’s attitudes.

For example, researchers found that parents who read math passages to their children using the iPad app Bedtime Math significantly increased math achievement over the course of a school year. Researchers pointed out that the tool also helps math-anxious parents because it gives them a structure they can use to help their children.

Even discussing how math is relevant in the real world has proven an effective way to boost student performance. One study found that when parents talked with their teenagers about how their high school classes would be useful in the future — like the importance of learning math to calculate sales prices or being prepared for specific college majors — their children performed better on the ACT and were more likely to pursue STEM majors than those who didn’t have these kinds of conversations with their parents.

Researchers at the University of Chicago have compiled a series of free tools in a resource called “Becoming a Math Family,” which walks parents through research-backed activities that parents can do with their children to help teach math concepts.

One, called “Checkout Line Estimation,” for children 8 and older, is a math game that families can play at the grocery store. Parents teach their children about rounding to the nearest dollar, and they then try to guess the total grocery bill before checkout.

“Patterning With Objects” involves collecting household items, like a bunch of silverware, and laying them out in a specific pattern, such as fork, knife, spoon. Children can then find other objects, such as fruit, and try to arrange them in a pattern that matches the silverware.

For more research-backed math activities, visit Becoming a Math Family.

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