Moms pass math anxiety to daughters

Mothers may be passing math anxiety — and low achievement — to their daughters, according to research by University of Chicago researcher Elizabeth Gunderson.

Saying “I’ve never been good at science” or “I can’t do math to save my life” sends a negative message to children. School-aged children tend to emulate the same-sex parent.

Teachers can transmit math anxiety, the study finds. Elementary education majors — predominantly female — have the highest math anxiety of any major. A 2010 study evaluated first and second graders taught by 17 different teachers.

At the beginning of the school year, there was no connection between the students’ math ability and their teachers’ math anxiety. By the end of the year, however, a dismaying relationship had emerged: The more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely the girls in their classes were to endorse negative stereotypes about females’ math ability, and the more poorly these girls did on a test of math achievement.

Don’t tell your kids you were bad at math, advises Esther J. Cepeda, a Washington Post columnist and a former teacher. She dreams of outlawing parental and societal complaints about how “hard,” “useless” or “stupid” math is.

The Baby-Einstein people teach their toddlers to group, sort and count, writes Cepeda, who taught first grade and high school algebra. But many parents don’t play with numbers with their children. Kids start school without number sense. By high school, they’re asking: “Why do we have to learn this? When will it ever matter?”

Everyone should study algebra, argues Dropout Nation’s RiShawn Biddle.

About Joanne


  1. Crimson Wife says:

    The issue I’m having with my oldest daughter is that she’s getting to the point in math where she’s encountering topics that even most college graduates won’t have any real world use for.

    Up until now, when she complained about having to learn a certain topic in math, I could show her a real-life application for it. But now, the answer is not uncommonly: “well, engineers need to know this and that’s why it’s part of the college prep sequence.” So even though she wants to be a speech & language pathologist and not an engineer, she has to learn it. She wishes that the U.S. did what most European countries do and have separate college prep tracks for those aspiring to STEM careers and those aspiring to non-STEM careers.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      I’m a writer… and I use calculus. (Got a gig writing math books. You never know when you’ll need this stuff, but if you don’t learn it, you needlessly narrow your options…)

    • Ann in LA says:

      One problem I see with the current series of courses is the lack of coverage of statistics. Everyone should be required to take at least a semester of it. We hear so many statistics in our every day lives, and so few people have any idea how to think about them.

      • Ann,

        Stats was a required course in my Comp Sci Major in college (Math 411, applied statistics). I’m in agreement with you on this.

  2. Ann in L.A. says:

    Our 5th grade girl’s math teacher prefaced the start of the unit on fractions by telling the class: “I was never very good at fractions as a kid, so here goes…”

    Even if true, why in the world would a teacher say that!

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Our 5th grade girl’s math teacher prefaced the start of the unit on fractions by telling the class: “I was never very good at fractions as a kid, so here goes…”

      I’m fairly disappointed that the teacher doesn’t consider this something to work on. If 10 year olds can learn it, maybe with some work the teacher could learn it, too?

      • I have seen FAR too many elementary teachers do something like that. Ha ha, I never was very good at math, funny isn’t it? Only no, it’s not funny; if you’re responsible for giving kids their mathematical foundations, you should jolly well be reasonably good at it.

        I had terrible math teachers for a very long time, and it had a real effect. It wasn’t until I took algebra II and trig that I figured out I wasn’t awful at math. One of my big goals with homeschooling is to keep my two daughters from absorbing math anxiety to the stupid extent that I did.

        • Yes, I have too (too many times to count) and I don’t find it funny; I find it appalling and entirely unacceptable. It’s no different from saying “I’m not very good at reading”. Unfortunately, we now have at least a couple of generations of kids who never mastered what used to be called ES (1-8) arithmetic – without calculators.

          It’s one of the reasons I have never had any respect for el ed programs. They accept kids with really weak knowledge and skills (SAT/ACT etc) and do nothing to remediate the situation. I’m fine with allowing entering students to test out of academic content material they already know, whether by SAT II, CLEP, AP or academic-department-generated tests, but it should be demanded that ed schools ensure academic content knowledge; math, phonics, grammar, composition, geography, history, sciences, government and sufficient art/architectural/musical history to complement history. Either they bring it with them into college or they should have to take the appropriate coursework, taught by the appropriate academic departments.

      • Ann in L.A. says:

        For me, the problem is with saying it. It starts kids off with the assumption that it is really hard and gives them an excuse if they stumble and don’t want to work their way through: well my teacher couldn’t do it at my age either!

  3. Is there a difference between having “math anxiety” and just being bad at math? People who are bad at drawing are not said to have “art anxiety”, and people who can’t carry a tune are not said to have “music anxiety”. And no one has ever told me that I have “basketball anxiety”.

    As a computer science instructor I’ve encountered hundreds of students who are really crappy at math. Many of them have no idea how bad they are, but I’ve never met one who seems to have the opposite problem of having a basic mathematical ability but a fear of incompetence.

    • Ha, I just read your last paragraph after posing my rant above. Granted I’m no math genius, but I’m perfectly capable up to trig and now that I’ve taught two kids, my ability to move numbers around in my head is far better than it ever was before.

    • Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

      I get anxious about having to do things I suck at.

    • OK, I have more to say now. I suspect that a lot of the students you see who are really bad at math have always been badly taught. Yes, they don’t know how to do the math, they have little number sense…but is that because they honestly have no talent for it at all or is it because they never developed their ability properly? Most people don’t have tremendous natural ability at math, but neither do they have a natural lack of ability–it’s a skill and a sense they could learn to do pretty well if well taught.

      I actually do know a guy who may fit your question. He is perfectly intelligent, but has a stronger than usual math anxiety, practically amounting to a block. If he’d calm down and do it, he’d be fine, and apparently this year he is finally managing to take a pre-algebra course at a CC with some pleasure. Before, he would shut down before he could even get started.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        I feel certain there are both: people who are bad at math because they have little aptitude for it and people who are bad at math because they were badly taught.

        I have no doubt there is a third group of people who are bad at math. They didn’t get bad instruction … but perhaps they weren’t ready or the instruction didn’t conform to the way their brain works. The instruction didn’t work for them at that point in their lives. Or perhaps the student didn’t care enough to work at it–and there is only so much motivating a teacher can do.

        I wonder what the sizes of the three groups are. It is tempting to think that in elementary school, the third group must be small. After all, aren’t young children “information sponges”? Yet I suspect it is the largest.

    • LTEC,

      I’m wondering how these students expect to get through a board approved computer science program (mine had at least 24-28 credit hours of math, including Calc I/II, Linear Algebra, Abstract Algebra, Applied Stats, and Diff Eqns I/II).

      This was for a Bachelor of Science in Comp Sci (circa early 1980’s).

  4. By high school, they’re asking: ”Why do we have to learn this? When will it ever matter?”

    And suddenly they’re undergraduates majoring in biology, preparing for a health career, and they’re not sure whether the drug dose they’ve calculated is 0.1 mg, 1 mg, or 10 mg. Hope they’re not my doctor/nurse/PA/therapist.

    Unfortunately for these poor mooks, math is like a toilet; you never need it until you do, urgently.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      And there’s the problem. Proportions are covered in pre-high school math. In a better system, most students would continue to encounter proportions all through high school. They would do them in the context of things that might matter later on, and they would do them enough that they don’t forget.

      Nowadays, proportions are “covered” and students remember enough for long enough to pass a test but then forget as the courses move on to things they don’t care about and probably WILL never use.

      That’s because we don’t ask realistically, what math will most students actually use in their lives, and then make sure students can do it. Instead, we ask, what is a good sequence to get a high school senior up to or just ready for calculus. Because that’s what high-powered STEM people do.

      Policy-makers think that’s nice. But I think it is cruel. Less capable students don’t do enough to get the basics and then pass through algebra and geometry doing “memorize and forget,” bored and feeling like failures, and graduating unable to do much math at all.

      • Florida resident says:

        Dear Mr. Sweeny:
        The first thing that mothers pass to their daughters
        are genes (along with the genes of biological father.)
        Your F.r.

  5. Cranberry says:

    I think all these studies draw enormous conclusions from REALLY small samples. I don’t think studies of 68 or 117 subjects should be cited as absolute proof of anything.

    It makes sense for schools to “platoon,” even in elementary school, particularly for math, so that the teachers who are secure in math can teach as many students as possible, shielding students from the teachers who are bad at math. It would be healthy if we were able to recruit more male teachers in elementary school.

    Even better would be to raise the math-knowledge bar for elementary teachers.

    When it comes to “math anxiety,” I have questions. Are the teachers equally capable in math? Did the researchers obtain their SAT scores? Or is “anxiety” really “I know I’m terrible at math–and have the test scores to prove it.” In which case, I would expect teachers who do not understand math to have difficulty teaching math.

    The wonder is that boys are not affected by this. Is it gender identification, or is something else at work? Could there be an option to avoid “mathy” math homework by doing arts & crafts, and the boys don’t choose that option nearly as often, thus get more practice? If given the option of writing a skit about addition, or doing practice sheets of addition problems, which one correlates with better skills at the end of the year? If you can either write about your feelings about math, or just do it, which one would produce better skills? In other words, are the girls adopting their teacher’s attitudes, or are there other forces at work?

    It is very interesting that boys post higher scores on the math portion of the SAT, at the top of the charts (700 is 90th %ile for boys, but 95th%ile for girls.) Of course, in the most recent SAT charts, boys are also slightly better on the critical reading portion. (700 is 95th%ile for boys, 96th %ile for girls).