Math Anxiety Hits Kids As Young As First Grade

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


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Math anxiety not only can hit as early as elementary school, but it can inhibit working memory for other tasks, according to new research. Photo: Sian Beilock.

Many high-achieving students experience math anxiety at a young age — a problem that can follow them throughout their lives, new research at the University of Chicago shows.

In a study of first- and second-graders, Sian Beilock, professor in psychology, found that students report worry and fear about doing math as early as first grade. Most surprisingly math anxiety harmed the highest-achieving students, who typically have the most working memory, Beilock and her colleagues found.

“You can think of working memory as a kind of ‘mental scratchpad’ that allows us to ‘work’ with whatever information is temporarily flowing through consciousness,” Beilock said. “It’s especially important when we have to do a math problem and juggle numbers in our head. Working memory is one of the major building blocks of IQ.”

Worries about math can disrupt working memory, which students could otherwise use to succeed. Beilock and other scholars have studied this impact of anxiety on working memory on older students, but her current work is the first to explore the impact on students as they begin school.

Bradley expert: not surprised

Greta Francis, PhD, said she is not surprised that math anxiety might be felt among students this young. "Math is part of the curriculum for all young children, so it makes sense that even young children could have math anxiety," said Francis, who is the associate director of Bradley Schools, a division of Bradley Hospital.

Francis did not see evidence that math anxiety might be increasing, but rather pointed out that investigators are now looking at younger population. "For example, Young, Wu, and Menon from Stanford University also did a study of the neurobiological basis of math anxiety in young children," Francis said, "and they noted that most previous research on math anxiety had focused on adolescents and adults."

More than hurting math

The team showed that a high degree of math anxiety undermined performance of otherwise successful students, placing them almost half a school year behind their less anxious peers, in terms of math achievement.

Less talented students with lower working memory were not impacted by anxiety, because they developed simpler ways of dealing with mathematics problems, such as counting on their fingers. Ironically, because these lower-performing students didn’t use working memory much to solve math problems, their performance didn’t suffer when worried.

“Early math anxiety may lead to a snowball effect that exerts an increasing cost on math achievement by changing students’ attitudes and motivational approaches towards math, increasing math avoidance, and ultimately reducing math competence,” Beilock wrote.

The study

For the study, the researchers tested 88 first-graders and 66 second-graders from a large urban school system. The students were tested to measure their academic abilities, their working memory and their fear of mathematics. They were asked, on a sliding scale, how nervous they felt to go to the front of the room and work on a mathematics problem on the board.

Beilock has another article on the subject:  “Math Anxiety, Who Has it, Why it Develops and How to Guard Against it,” published in the current issue of Trends in Cognitive Science (Tics). The article, co-written with UChicago postdoctoral scholar Erin Maloney, points out that math anxiety has a variety of sources. “Its development is probably tied to both social factors, such as a teachers’ and parents’ anxiety about their own math ability and a student’s own numerical and spatial competencies,” they write. Beilock is also the author of Choke, What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting it Right When you Have To, is one of the nation’s leading experts on the power of anxiety to undermine performance across a wide variety of fields from test taking, to public speaking, to your golf score.

Strategies for students

Greta Francis offered the following advice for parents who might want to ensure that their children reduce any math anxiety. "Removing time pressures (like timed tests) and rewarding accuracy rather than speed can be a way of reducing anxiety," she said. "This could be particularly beneficial for young children who are just starting to learn basic math skills.  With extreme or incapacitating forms of math anxiety, cognitive behavioral treatment approaches that work for other types of anxiety may be helpful." For an online source of tips and strategies regarding anxiety, Francis recommends parents check out

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