Researchers at the University of Chicago Science of Learning Center share tips for supporting children's math learning at home.
If you heard a parent say, “Let’s read a bedtime story” to his or her preschool child, would you be surprised? Probably not. But what if the parent instead said, “Let’s do some bedtime math”?
Many parents think of reading and storytelling as part of their child-rearing duties, but think of math as something kids learn and do at school. Even if parents know that math is important to their children’s future academic success, there is another reason math may not be part of family life: many adults fear it.
The good news is that there are lots of math-rich activities parents can do with their kids at home that can help boost children’s math learning, even when parents themselves are anxious about math.
Math anxiety is specifically triggered in math-related situations.[1, 2, 3] Simply calculating a tip on a dinner bill can send some people into a panic. Math-anxious individuals avoid math by taking fewer math courses and staying away from math-intensive careers. They also dislike encountering math in everyday situations, such as calculating sales tax. Avoidance of math, in turn, can lead to lower math proficiency.
You might think that if math makes you anxious, it’s because you just aren’t good at math. But having math anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean you are bad at math. For people with math anxiety, the stress of doing math robs them of the focus they need to buckle down and concentrate on the math task at hand.[7, 8] This lack of focus makes it difficult to juggle numbers in your head or keep track of information when solving problems, leading to errors.
Interestingly, math anxiety actually takes its biggest toll on students who perform at the top—the very students with the potential to lead successful careers in STEM fields. These students tend to use more advanced and efficient strategies when solving math problems and therefore suffer most when their focus is depleted by math anxiety. Their worries lead them to make mistakes or to adopt less effective problem solving strategies. This effect of anxiety holds true around the globe, even in countries high in math performance.
You might also think that math anxiety only arises once math gets complex, but we have found that some children suffer from math anxiety as early as first grade.[10, 11] As with older students, math anxiety does not reflect poor math potential, but rather interferes with children’s ability to do math. Importantly, math anxiety can arise from early experiences in school as well as at home.
When parents are math anxious, they may not naturally think of engaging their young children in math talk and activities. In addition to avoiding math, math-anxious parents sometimes share their fears about math in overt ways, such as saying, “I’m just not a math person,” or “We’re not a math family.”
Math avoidance and negative math talk are not the only consequences of math anxiety in families. Parents’ math anxiety can also lead to less effective parent-child math interactions. For example, we found that when math anxious parents frequently provide homework help, their children learn less math over the course of first and second grade than when they provide this help less frequently. Thus, the well-intended homework help of math-anxious parents can backfire. This finding does not mean that math-anxious parents should avoid math interactions with their children, but rather that they need help to engage in a constructive way.
Supporting children’s math learning can start when kids are young, and can be part of daily life. Both parents who are afraid of math and those that love math can promote their children’s math learning by creating positive math experiences at home. First, we’ll go over some of the ways all parents can support children’s math learning. Then, we’ll provide tips for parents who may not naturally embrace family math time due to their own anxiety.
One great way to support young children’s math learning is through play. Blocks and puzzles are go-to activities in many families, and provide many opportunities for talk about numbers and spatial relationships. Board games and card games also provide opportunities for fantastic math talk and math thinking.
Everyday interactions can spark math talk and math thinking as well.[13, 14, 15, 16] Consider setting the table as an opportunity to talk about numerical and spatial relationships: “How many plates do we need tonight?” “How many soup spoons if Johnny doesn’t want soup?” “What shape are the plates?” In an observational study, we found that parents who talked more often about number with toddlers (e.g., counting objects and telling children how many objects are in a set: “You have three trucks!”), had children with more developed math knowledge at about four years old. The same was true for children’s spatial thinking, another important foundation for math achievement. Children who heard more spatial talk—talk about shapes (e.g., triangle, rectangle), features of objects (e.g., curved, straight), and dimensions (e.g., tall, short)—are better at spatial tasks such as imagining the movements of objects and copying block designs. Importantly, children who have more of these math learning opportunities start school with a stronger foundation in math and tend to show higher math achievement throughout the school years.
When children are older, parents can promote positive attitudes about math by emphasizing and communicating the personal relevance of math to their children. In a recent study with high school students, researchers gave one group of parents materials and access to a website that explained the relevance of math for their teenagers’ everyday lives (e.g., video games, cooking, art, sports, cell phones) and also future careers. Another group of parents was not given these materials. Researchers instructed the parents with the materials to talk to their children about math relevance, and results showed that their children took more optional math courses in high school and scored better on the math section of the ACT. These findings suggest that parents can spark children’s interest in math, and help their math achievement, by talking about the ways in which they use math in their lives (e.g., budgeting, cooking, building, time management, etc.), and that this approach might work with younger children as well.
How can parents overcome math anxiety to help their children learn math concepts and interest them in math? We have found that providing parents with engaging, low-pressure ways to interact with their children about math can help them support their children’s math learning. For example, giving parents number books to read to their preschool children helps children learn the meanings of the cardinal number words (that “three” refers to sets containing three objects). We have also found that an app that involves parents in collaboratively solving word problems with their first graders results in more math learning over the school year, particularly for children of math anxious parents, compared to children in a control group that used a reading app.
Just as programs such as Reach Out and Read show that children’s language and literacy skills benefit from parent-child shared book reading, programs that encourage parent-child math talk and problem solving through math storybooks and math apps help children’s math skills flourish. For families with math-anxious adults, using semi-structured, engaging resources can pave the way for positive adult-child math talk that may even spill over to everyday interactions.
So what about that bedtime math problem? Such early family involvement with math has the power to foster a love of math and to set children on a path for success in the STEM disciplines. And that’s good news for math-anxious parents.
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