A recent study from the University of Chicago sheds new light on the widespread, yet under-investigated, phenomenon of anxiety surrounding math performance. Researchers found that students reported feelings of fear and worry about math as early as first grade and that this fear affected the performance of high-achieving students disproportionately. Whereas a child with less math ability might employ strategies such as finger-counting to work through problems, gifted students rely more on their extensive working memory—a cognitive process that is disrupted when they feel anxiety.
According to the study, about half of high-achieving students experience medium to high levels of math anxiety, typically setting their math achievement almost half a school year behind their less anxious peers. There is, however, some good news for parents and educators—math performance can improve when gifted students are taught to regulate or reframe their anxiety. The researchers suggest two methods of helping children overcome their fears: expressive writing and facilitating an emotional shift. Having students write about their math-related worries ahead of time can help ease the burden and free their working memory for doing math. Additionally, the attitudes of the adults in their lives can influence students to shift their anxiety into more productive feelings, such as anticipation or excitement. The key lies in presenting math as an enjoyable challenge rather than a potential source of stress; parents should model positive attitudes toward math in the home from the time their child is young. Bedtime Math is a great resource for parents hoping to increase their child’s comfort level with the discipline, as it aims to transform math from a school chore to a family bonding activity.