Parental Anxiety with Mathematics

It is well known that for some people mathematics causes great anxiety and an article from the Telegraph by Javier Espinoza (@JaviereTMG) last Tuesday (11th August) reported on research linking parental maths anxiety to lower attainment in mathematics by their children. Have a read…

Aside from the fairly awful headline (ability and attainment are not necessarily the same), like many reporting of educational research there was

  • No link to the original research paper
  • Claims made that are not well explained.

The above things really do irritate me – how hard is it to include a link to a research paper? Luckily the paper is actually pretty easy to find online through the webpage of Professor Sian Beilock, one of the authors of the study who is quoted in the Telegraph article. In fact you may recognise the name as she is the author of the fairly popular book “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveals About Getting it Right When you Have To”. The paper is available at this link on her research lab’s homepage and was published in Psychological Science OnlineFirst, an official journal of the Association of Psychological Science.

Overall I feel this is a very interesting piece of research, and their methods are explained very well. The study looks at a group of 438 children (from 90 separate classes) across 29 different schools in the Midwest states of the US. These children were selected from a larger group of 868, from whom children were removed for various reasons, including the need for parental data for each child. As the authors admit, the children whose parents chose to participate came from higher socio-economic status (SES) schools than those that did not – unfortunately this seems common with this kind of study. Despite this the students were still drawn from schools where the percentage of children receiving free or reduced price lunches (a common proxy for socio-economic status, though we all know this is not without its faults) ranged from 0% to 97%.

Teacher’s math anxiety and knowledge were also assessed, and due to missing data from the teachers the number of children who could be used reduced to 379 (211 girls, 168 boys) across 27 different schools with 76 teachers (73 female and 3 male).

The children completed measures of achievement – both in reading and mathematics, and in math anxiety at the beginning and end of an academic year. Parents completed a questionnaire designed to grade their math anxiety and find out how often they help their children with their homework. Teacher’s maths knowledge and anxiety was assessed at the middle of the year (why not at the end?..)

In their paper they provide more detail than was given in the article. It seems that parental anxiety had an impact on children’s attainment when the parents were frequently helping with homework (this didn’t carry over to reading attainment). They then hypothesised that this decreased performance throughout the year would also lead to increased maths anxiety in the children. To do this they generated 5000 (better than some, but they could easily have done more) bootstrap samples to test the strength of the indirect path from “parents’ math anxiety through childrens end-of-year math achievement to children’s end-of-year math anxiety at three levels of parents’ homework-helping behaviour”. This showed that when parents frequently helped their children with their math homework, parents’ maths anxiety was related to their children’ end of year math anxiety, though as far as I can tell this has not been established in a causal way.  They also showed that the effect of parental anxiety on children’s attainment (when frequent homework help is given) was still present even when controlling for the maths knowledge of the parent.

Does anyone know of any similar studies in the UK?

I think this is a valuable piece of research as, to me, it highlights the need to engage with parents and try to reduce their maths anxiety as well as the students. Of course, students experience differing levels of help with homework, but where homework is given it is clear that it is given with good intentions. If it is the case that simple statement by parents can negate the positive effect of help, then I am sure many parents would like to know how to tackle this. I think further study is needed to confirm some of these results and explore in detail how parental help could differ as a function of math anxiety, but it certainly can’t do any harm to engage parents more with this.

As an aside I’m very interested in these Woodcock-Johnson tests that were used – does anyone have a copy?

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