It’s understandable that parents worry about their children’s math performance, even at a very young age, and that they try to help. But they may need to start thinking about how they help; according to a new study in Psychological Science, the more that anxious parents try to help their kids with math homework, the more harm they do.
“When parents have a poor relation with math and frequently help their children with their homework, their children learn less math,” write the researchers, led by Erin Maloney at the University of Chicago.
“Notably, even if parents are competent in the type of basic math that first- and second-grade children encounter, this does not preclude them from having feelings of anxiety when faced with their children’s math homework.”
The trend holds true even for parents that have been highly educated, with competent teachers, and at generally high-achieving schools.
To draw these conclusions, researchers tested more than 800 Illinois students at the beginning and end of their school year on their math skills and anxiety, and surveyed their parents on their own math anxiety, how often they helped their children, and their level of education.
There are a variety of possible reasons for this effect, the authors write. Parents with high math anxiety are likely to exhibit general negativity about the subject, which might demotivate children. They might translate their own high fear of failure into harsher criticism when their child struggles. And they may have developed inflexible ways of solving problems that clash with what’s being taught at school.
The problem seems specific to math—no similar effect was recorded when it came to reading, which were also assessed.
Common wisdom holds that the more involved a parent is in their child’s education, the better. To improve a child’s math performance, the authors argue, math averse parents shouldn’t stop helping their kids out, but rather be given more support and advice on how to do so effectively.
Just having anxious parents isn’t enough, the study also shows. It takes the combination of “math anxiety” with attempted help. The effect of parental anxiety isn’t statistically significant when parents aren’t involved in the math homework.
Math is a tricky subject for some children, and many parents don’t feel confident helping when the homework becomes difficult.
“Math is a cumulative subject that continues to build on skills learned, so it can be hard — especially as children move into middle and high school — for parents to jump into a lesson and offer help,” said Gwyn Morris of the Omaha Huntington Learning Center. “One question we often get from parents is what they should do to support their children on math homework that’s beyond the ‘everyday math’ with which they are comfortable.”
Morris offers five suggestions for parents to help their children navigate their way through math homework:
1. Encourage them to look in the book for similar problems. When children get stuck on a problem, parents can have them browse the textbook (using the table of contents and index to point them in the right direction) for sample problems that cover similar information. They can browse class notes or handouts too.
2. Read directions aloud. Parents can help children retrace their work by reading through the pieces of a problem step by step and confirming that they understand. Children who are strong auditory learners might prefer having a parent read, while those who are more visually inclined might rather read to a parent, who can then help them decode and determine whether they missed any important information or details.
3. Talk through what was covered in class. It’s easy for children to become overwhelmed when they are deep in the minutiae of a math assignment, but parents can diffuse their children’s frustration by taking a step back and asking what the teacher taught that day. They can refer to class notes together to look for clues on how the teacher walked the students through a problem type or concept. This might help jog the memory with some of the specifics that are escaping them during homework time.
4. Double check math facts. While parents might not know how to solve a complicated algebra problem, they can verify any math facts with a calculator to make sure their children didn’t miscalculate an addition, subtraction, multiplication or division component of a bigger problem.
5. Develop a list of questions. When children end up with a wrong answer and still can’t figure out where they made a mistake after reviewing their steps to check their work, parents should have them write down specific questions about the steps that confused them. At the very least, this will give them what they need to have a productive conversation the following day at school with their teacher — and prove they gave the assignment their best effort.
“Math is a subject where small problems can become big ones as time goes on,” Morris said. “If homework time has become a stressful ordeal, we can help get to the root of the issue and help get back on track.”
Call 402-884-4407 to find out more about Huntington’s math tutoring program.
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