Parents’ anxiety about maths may affect children’s performance, study finds

Pupils who played maths computer game developed by researchers showed significant improvement in their skills

Parents who feel anxious about maths may be inadvertently affecting their children’s performance in the subject, new research suggests.

The findings are contained in a study by researchers who examined the performance of more than 400 pupils, their parents and teachers across primary schools in Dublin and Mayo. Researchers observed that parents’ feelings towards maths had a significant impact on their children’s education.

Maths anxiety is defined as a negative emotional response to maths characterised by worry and emotional distress which can influence an individual’s performance.

The level of maths anxiety among respondents was established through a series of questions such as whether their palms sweat if they have to study a difficult maths problem; if feelings of anxiety interfere with their ability to solve a maths questions; if their mind goes blank when about to start a challenging maths question, etc.

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The results suggest that elevated levels of maths anxiety in parents is associated with significantly increased maths anxiety and decreased maths performance in children.

The results are contained in the Arithmós Project, a collaboration between University College Dublin and Technological University Dublin, supported by funding from the Irish Research Council.

The finding echoes previous studies showing that parents play an important role in the social transmission of maths anxiety.

Evidence suggests that such parents may inadvertently convey their negative feelings towards maths during related activities, such as expressing frustration over the subject. This negativity during parent-child maths interactions may have an adverse effect on children’s maths performance and feelings towards the subject.

Researchers also found at primary school level that boys outperformed girls in most maths tasks and that the latter experienced higher levels of maths anxiety.

They said this unease in their mathematical ability meant even the highest-achieving female students may shy away from maths tasks because they think they might be too difficult.

Boys demonstrated significantly higher motivation and perseverance, along with lower levels of maths anxiety.

“It is striking that girls underperformed in some maths tasks despite having the same teachers and attending co-ed school,” said Arithmós Project lead, Dr Flavia H Santos of UCD.

“Our data indicated that parental maths anxiety and negative attitudes towards maths had an impact on homework activities and, in turn, widening disparities. We as a society, educators and parents must change the way we introduce maths to young children.”

The impact of mathematics attitudes on education, the report finds, demands “immediate attention”, prompting educators and policymakers to identify effective strategies to foster positive mathematics attitudes from an early age.

One potential approach undertaken as part of the project involved the integration of educational digital games into the classroom.

A digital card came called the Seven Spells, which stimulates mathematical skills and strategic thinking, was developed by Dr Pierpaolo Dondio and Dr Mariana Rocha from TU Dublin and was introduced to more than 400 third and fourth class pupils across 23 classrooms.

A number of children from each classroom played the Seven Spells games for 45 minutes a week over a five-week period, during regular school hours. Others in the class were engaged with educational maths videos, while those in the “passive groups” did only their regular classroom activities.

The children allowed to play Seven Spells showed a significant improvement in their maths skills.

“The gameplay had a positive effect on the avoidance towards maths as even highly maths anxious students spontaneously continue to play after the intervention,” Dr Santos added.

The report outlines recommendations to parents, teachers and policymakers to better promote maths education and warns that a lack of confidence at such an early age can discourage young girls, in particular, from pursuing an interest in Stem (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) areas.

Research elsewhere indicates that students tend to exhibit less positive attitudes towards maths as time progresses and the curriculum becomes more abstract, notably during secondary school.

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