The evidence is clear: our negative comments and attitudes about mathematics can have a direct — and lasting — impact on our children.
Choose your words carefully when you talk about math around your kids.
Because research shows that math anxiety can be passed on to kids — from both their teachers and their parents.
This might not come as a shock. After all, we know that kids are like sponges, soaking up all kinds of spoken and unspoken messages.
But parents likely don’t realize that even their occasional, off-hand, negative comment about math is planting the math anxiety seed in their kids’ brains.
And that seed will grow to obstruct any chance kids have to feel good about math.
Your instincts might make you inclined to tell your children about your own math anxiety.
You may say things that sound encouraging, like, “Don’t worry, I was scared of math at your age too,” or “I hate math, but you don’t have to!”
You may think those comments help your kids feel reassured and understood.
Unfortunately, these well-intentioned phrases are causing more harm than good.
A study published in Psychological Science found that “when parents are more math-anxious, their children learn significantly less math...and have more math anxiety by the school year's end.”
Let’s break that down.
First, the simple act of introducing anxious thoughts to the brain actually prevents the brain from processing a math problem.
The brain is so busy managing stress, it doesn’t have any free space to focus on math. This means your child won’t successfully process the math, leading them to a wrong answer.
Now the brain associates stress with math.
A connection between the feeling (anxiety) and the task (math) has been created in the child.
This connection will be reinforced continually into a pattern, leading to recurring math anxiety that will grow if left unchecked.
But there’s more. This math anxiety in kids was most common “if math-anxious parents reported providing frequent help with math homework.”
This is the point where many parents throw their hands up in the air, thinking “I can’t do anything right!”
You want to help your kids, but now there’s research saying that your help is hurting them?
Not exactly. Don’t give up just yet.
This doesn’t mean that, if you have math anxiety, you shouldn’t help your kids with their math homework.
It means you should feel better about relying on outside sources to cultivate positive attitudes towards math in your children.
The same study suggests incorporating “structured activities that allow parents to interact with their children around math in positive ways...in the form of math books, computer, and traditional board games, or Internet apps.”
For math-anxious parents who want to help their kids in this positive, structured way, there’s Elephant Learning.
Yalitza was one of those moms who was likely — unknowingly — letting her own math anxiety impact her daughters, 7-and-a-half-year-old Mia and 5-year-old Alina.
She says, “I was never given a strong foundation in mathematics. I do not naturally ‘think’ mathematically. Until recently I still used my fingers to calculate basic arithmetic questions.”
Whether or not she shared this information with her kids — planting that seed of math anxiety — she certainly shared their emotional pain.
Math had become “the dreaded subject, especially for my oldest daughter [Mia],” says Yalitza, adding that they had “cried many tears during past math lessons.”
Regardless of what researchers say is best, parents are human beings. It can be hard to see your child cry and not cry with them. That’s a natural response.
Sometimes the tears are what finally make you realize that you need help.
Your anxiety-induced tears are feeding the math anxiety in your child. And now there’s research telling you that you’re not a failure for recognizing this — you’re on your way to a solution.
In fact, relying on outside resources to lead your child’s math journey is the best thing you can do for them.
Yalitza decided to stop growing these seeds of fear and worry in her kids. She wanted to find something that would “motivate and encourage” her daughters.
She found Elephant Learning.
Before Elephant Learning, Mia was already making “great improvements with her addition and subtraction skills up to 100,” but Yalitza notes that those improvements had come “at a slow pace to avoid frustration.”
Younger sister Alina seemed “to grasp and enjoy math” and was “learning her addition facts within 10.”
Yalitza knew that both girls “enjoyed playing math games,” so the transition to Elephant Learning’s math games for kids was easy.
There was no anxiety involved in getting set up with the Elephant Learning app. Mia and Alina could immediately begin playing the math games.
The app was assessing their existing skills to determine which math concepts they already mastered, and which concepts were still challenging.
But those assessments were hidden from Mia and Alina. All they saw were animated animals and objects they had to manipulate to advance to the next game level.
Just like any game, they were given chances to try again, or move on to a different game. No failure or blockage prevented them from playing as much as they liked.
The more they played, the more the app adjusted the games for each of them to remain challenged but not overwhelmed.
Yalitza got to log in to see the math concepts the girls were still working on. That made it easier for her to decide what kinds of fun activities she could create to reinforce those concepts.
Her quality time with her daughters didn’t have to be filled with her destructive insecurities about math.
Instead of letting her math anxiety impact her daughters, Yalitza let Elephant Learning take on the teaching role in the form of math games for kids.
Mia started out about a year behind her peers in her math abilities. After six months of playing, she learned a year-and-a-half of math concepts and continues to show progress.
Younger sister Alina started out about two years behind her peers, but rapidly learned three years of math in the same six-month period.
Yalitza has empowered her daughters with “a strong foundation” in math — something she wished she had as a child.
She’s now able to create math-related activities for her kids that are enjoyable. She isn’t stuck teaching lessons that intimidate her.
She’s not letting her own negative experiences influence her daughters any longer. She’s replacing those seeds of anxiety with lasting, positive math experiences.
She’s found a way to help her daughters “thrive in this very important subject.”
Related: How to Gamify Your Math Lessons
“I hope to give my children the strong foundation I lacked as a child so that they can thrive in this very important subject.” - Mom, Yalitza