Children Do Better in Math When Parents Conquer Their Own Math Fears

college presidentSTEM A new study, led by Barnard College President Sian Leah Beilock, a nationally recognized cognitive scientist who studies the pressures children face in school, reveals that when parents who are anxious about math engage in an interactive math app with their children, their children’s math achievement improves for the long term. The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, followed children from first through third grade and also found that exposure to the math app changed parents’ own attitudes about math for the better.

President Sian Leah Beilock“Children with parents who are fearful of math learn less math across the school year,” says Beilock, who led the study with Susan Levine at the University of Chicago. “The power behind the parent-math app intervention is that it helped change parents’ own attitudes about math—how important parents thought it was for their child to succeed in math, for example. This change in the parents’ attitudes translated to children’s higher overall math achievement.”

Many adults report having anxiety about math. And the math anxiety of the adults who are important in those children’s lives, such as parents and teachers, is tied to children’s own math achievement. In a prior large field study, Beilock and UChicago researchers found that when parents are more math anxious, their children learn significantly less math over the school year—but only if their math-anxious parents provided frequent help with homework.

The idea that parents’ own math anxiety is linked to their child’s poor math performance contributed to the current investigation into whether an intervention, in the form of a daily math story problem delivered via an educational math app that parents and children do together, would decrease the relation between parents’ math anxiety and their children’s achievement. Beilock’s team found that this math-app intervention, started in first grade, had sustained positive effects on children’s math achievement through third grade — specifically for children whose parents were most fearful about math. This was true even though most parents and children stopped using the app consistently over the three years.

“Before the intervention, the higher math anxious parents had lower expectations for their children’s math success,” says UChicago professor Susan Levine, co-PI on the study. “They also valued math less for their children. Importantly, using the math app helped cut the link between parents’ math anxiety and their lower values and expectations about math for their children, and this helped explain the positive effect of the math app on children’s long-term math achievement.”

To test whether engaging with an educational math app could be beneficial, researchers randomly assigned families to receive the interactive math app intervention and traced their progress from first grade through third grade, compared with a control group that received a similar app that focused on reading comprehension. The sample consisted of 587 children from the greater Chicago area spread across 40 classrooms, and consisted of boys and girls from diverse backgrounds.

Children completed measures of their math achievement at the beginning and end of each grade. Parents’ expectations and values

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