Math anxiety can lead to poor performance and also deter people from taking math courses. This is because feelings of anxiety can tie up important cognitive resources (known as working memory), which are needed for solving math problems.

But why are some people more math anxious than others? And is there a link between parents’ math anxiety and their children’s math anxiety?

As researchers who study the role of cognitive and emotional factors in achievement, these are some of the questions that my colleagues and I have been examining. We find that when parents with math anxiety help with homework, it could have a negative impact on their kids.

**Social factors contribute to math anxiety**

Math anxiety can start early. Children as young as six can experience varying degrees of math anxiety which is linked to poor math achievement.

While recent research suggests that some people are predisposed to develop math anxiety, and that there may be a genetic component to this predisposition, the social factors that can lead someone to develop math anxiety are also important to understand.

Recently, we examined the link between parents’ math anxiety and their children’s math anxiety and math achievement.

We assessed the math anxiety and math achievement levels of 438 first- and second-grade children at both the beginning and the end of the school year. We assessed their parents’ math anxiety level. We also assessed how often they helped their children with their math homework.

Our research demonstrated that when parents are highly-math-anxious, their children learn significantly less math (over one-third of a grade level less than their peers in math achievement across the school year) and have more math anxiety by school-year’s end. But this is only if parents provide frequent math homework help.

When highly-math-anxious parents don’t help their children very often with their math homework, their children are unaffected by their parents’ anxiety.

**How parents transfer anxiety**

Why does the homework help of highly math-anxious parents backfire?

We can’t say for certain why the homework help of highly-math-anxious parents backfires, leading their children to learn less math and be more math anxious than their peers, but we believe that there are a number of possible reasons.

First, when helping with their children’s math homework, highly-math-anxious parents may be expressing their own dislike of math, perhaps saying things like “math is hard” or “some people are simply not math people.”

Finally, highly-math-anxious parents may become flustered when their children’s teachers use novel strategies that parents themselves never learned.

We believe that being exposed to negative attitudes about math and confusing instruction from parents might cause children to lose confidence in their math abilities and to invest less effort into learning math, resulting in lower math achievement by the end of the year.

**Couldn’t this just be genetics?**

While I mentioned earlier that there is a genetic link between math anxiety of parents and their children, our research indicates that parents have more than just a genetic influence on their children’s math outcomes.

If genetics were the only factor at play, then we would have seen that parents with higher math anxiety would also have children displaying similar anxiety. They would also have lower math achievement as compared to their peers.

But that was not what we found.

Rather, it was specifically in the case of children whose highly-math-anxious parents helped them often with math homework that we saw this trickling down of parents’ math anxiety.

Thus, while genetics may be part of the equation, it is certainly not the entire story.

**How can children be supported**

This research highlights the need for researchers and educators to work together to develop more effective tools to help parents – especially those who are anxious – support their children’s math success.

These tools may come in the form of worksheets, apps, and games, or parent-teacher workshops aimed at teaching parents the new strategies that are being used in the classroom to teach math today.

Fortunately, there are a number of research-based strategies that can be very useful in helping children and parents deal with their math anxiety. My favorite strategy is a simple, inexpensive, and very effective tool called expressive writing.

To use this strategy, students simply have to write about their worries regarding an upcoming math test (for example by answering the question “Explain in detail how this upcoming math test makes you feel”) for about seven minutes before they take the test.

This straightforward act of writing actually causes students to perform better on the math test than what they would have performed had they not written at all.

While it is true that even the best-intentioned parents may contribute to their child’s anxiety and lower achievement, the good news is that simple strategies, like expressive writing, can go a long way in helping children combat the negative effects of math anxiety.

Success in math requires more than just ability. It is also about developing the right attitude.

*This article originally appeared on The Conversation*

Maryam Mirzakhani, 37, will be awarded the Fields Medal — widely considered math’s Nobel Prize, since there is no Nobel for mathematics — at a ceremony in Seoul on Wednesday morning. Born and raised in Iran, she has been a professor at Stanford University since 2008.

All the previous 52 winners of the Fields have been men since its inception in 1936, one of the most visible indicators that at its highest level math remains a predominantly male preserve.

Ingrid Daubechies, president of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), said that Mirzakhani’s success was “hugely symbolic and I hope it will encourage more women to get into mathematics because we need more women. I am very happy that now we can put to rest that particular ‘it has never happened before.’”

The Fields Medal is awarded every four years at the IMU’s International Mathematical Congress to two to four mathematicians aged under 40. The medal honors “outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement,” which is why there is an age limit.

Besides Mirzakhani, the other recipients will be Manjul Bhargava, Princeton professor who was born in Canada but raised in the U.S.; Artur Ávila from Brazil; and Martin Hairer from Austria.

As well as honoring a woman for the first time, this year’s Fields also reflect the rise of the developing world in producing top mathematicians, even if they are working at universities in the West.

Ávila, who works in Paris, is the first winner from South America and Mirzakhani the first from the Middle East.

Yet it is the emergence of a female winner that is likely to cause the most discussion in math and science circles. Even though the percentage of math majors who are women is now approaching parity with men in the U.S., women make up less than 10% of full math professors at the top 100 universities in the U.S., according to Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, both Cornell University professors, in their book *The Mathematics of Sex.*

“In the U.S. about 30% of the graduate population at research departments are women,” said Daubechies. “But a higher percentage of women leave academia than men, so we have an even lower percentage of women postdocs and an even lower percentage of women in faculty. It is not just that the numbers are small, it is also that more leave percentagewise. I hope that will change.”

Daubechies, who is the first female president of the IMU, said that there have been excellent female mathematicians before but often they have not done their strongest work before age 40.

“I am of course chuffed that the first female Fields medalist has happened when I am president, but I think it is coincidence. I did not set it out as an agenda point. It would have been completely inappropriate to do that.”

Each Fields Medal comes with a citation, which can be hard to understand for those with no mathematical grounding — and even those with one, since the frontiers of math are such abstract places.

Ávila won “for his profound contributions to dynamical systems theory,” Bhargava won “for developing powerful new methods in the geometry of numbers,” Hairer won “for his outstanding contributions to the theory of stochastic partial differential equations,” and Mirzakhani won “for her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.”

Daubechies added: “At the IMU we believe that mathematical talent is spread randomly and uniformly over the Earth — it is just opportunity that is not. We hope very much that by making more opportunities available — for women, or people from developing countries — we will see more of them at the very top, not just in the rank and file.”

]]>