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Are Students Inheriting a Fear of Math?

by Anne-Evan Williams, LGL Director of Educational Development

A parent recently confided to me that his sixth-grade son was now doing math that he'd never seen before.  He worried that he couldn't check over homework, answer questions, or even understand the assignments.  His attitude could only be described as "anxious."  I spoke to the son about his math class as well.  Ordinarily a straight-A math student, he now said that math was "hard" and that he worried he would "fail" this year.  Granted, there is a distinct ramp-up in math expectations, particularly as students transition into middle school, but the student's change in attitude was surprising.  It made me wonder how much of his new-found anxiety about math is a reflection of his father's.

Parents worrying about their children's math homework is not a new phenomenon.  Especially as math instructional techniques have changed over the years, parents often fear that their children are learning more complex ideas than they ever did.  And the expectations for math achievement continue to grow, fueled both by No Child Left Behind expectations and by the increasing demand for math-based skills in an ever-growing technological workplace.  This creates an anxiety for parents, even more so for the very involved parents who pride themselves on being able to assist their children with homework and studying.  This kind of anxiety crosses both cultural and socio-economic lines. 

Washington state Superintendent of Instruction Terry Bergeson noted in a talk given at the Northwest Math Conference that an important component of increasing interest and success in school math instruction is parental involvement.  She said that it is up to the schools to make sure that parents and teachers have a common vocabulary for discussing current trends in math so that parents feel comfortable assisting with homework and encouraging their children's success in math.

Math anxiety is a common problem.  It's a large part of the reason students fail to take important upper-level math courses.  But maybe talking to our students about their math fears isn't all we need to be doing.  Maybe some of that fear is inherited, passed down from parents with their own math anxieties. Maybe it's time for the schools to address the math anxieties of the parents as well.

Tags: math anxiety, math instruction, parental involvement, parent homework help

  1. Janlac
    Reply 02/11/09

    Math is really a difficult subject for at least 70-80 percent of students being surveyed by a refutable institution. In fact, a parent was worried their students also could not understand math. To her surprise, her sixth-grade son now studies mathematics. The mom thinks her son might be worried he could not pass the math subject and would go back to sixth grade next year. For her, this new development of her child now studying math is amazing because he’d never done this ever before.
    Parents who worried about the poor studying habit of their students is no longer a new problem. This dilemma has already existed before. It’s only on the parent’s or the teacher’s motivations that kids would be encouraged to love math and make it their favorite subject.

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