Maths homework? Are parents the algorithm for maths anxiety?

Marianna Kilburn

04 September 2015

What level are you at?

You thought the ghosts of trigonometry, algebra, fractions and calculus had been laid to rest long ago in your maths classroom, but you just never know when it might come back to haunt you. Many parents are now struggling to help their children with their maths homework, so to find out just how much you really can remember, ban the calculators and try out the quiz below.

With schools starting back, it’s not just the kids who are dreading homework, often the parents are too. And what could be worse than being faced with a page of fractions, some nonsensical algebra and the hopeful and expectant eyes of your child asking for help?

Indeed memories of the maths classroom tend to inspire shudders of terror, feelings of hopelessness and utter boredom in many, as well as the uncharacteristic feelings of hatred for those few alien classmates who seemed to take delight in immediately knowing the answers to apparently impossible questions.

Unfortunately, the dread of maths is a feeling which never seems to dwindle as we leave school, and suddenly working out our credit card bills, understanding mortgages and calculating journey times leave us feeling somewhat stumped. When it then comes to helping children with their maths homework, the best that many parents have to offer is a look of panic and the first answer that a Google search can produce.

The telegraph reports that: ‘...out of all the subjects, maths was identified by the highest proportion of parents as the hardest subject to help their child with. 34% said maths was the hardest, while only 8 per cent identified English as the most difficult.’

So it seems you are not alone in fearing fractions, dreading decimals, or panicking over percentages, with over 46 per cent of parents feeling unequipped to help their children with maths homework.

Why do we have a fear of maths?

Perhaps it is that for many, the feeling of sitting in a classroom and not understanding what the teacher is talking about, while those around us are nodding and scribbling down answers, was most common in the maths classroom.

Perhaps it is that having an ability to count up streams of numbers in our heads, being able to problem solve or to make sense of algebraic equations is often deemed as a sign of intelligence.

Perhaps it is that maths was one of the few classes that answers are either right or wrong, meaning that attaining grades such as 3.5/10 was all too common a reality.

Perhaps we just didn’t like our maths teacher. Or perhaps the fear of maths is simply embedded in us...

The fear of maths prevails

It seems that just as we pass down hair colour, eye colour and the ability (or lack of) to roll our tongue, we also pass on a fear of maths to our children.

However, unlike the aforesaid traits, this fear of maths isn’t something stored in our genes and transmitted that way, it is more of a cultural inheritance, much like we teach our children to speak our language, wear clothes and look before crossing a road.

If the child is immersed in an environment where fear of maths prevails, it is likely that they too will develop anxiety around maths. This is not just a hypothetical assumption; a study carried out at the University of Chicago looked at correlations between attitude and performance in maths.

It identified that where maths-anxious parents help their children with homework, the grades drop and the children fear the subject, but where little help is given, the child’s attitude and performance in maths is unconnected to the parents’ perception of the subject.

Interestingly, such a correlation was not found for reading attitude and performance. Though you may feel as if you are supporting your child by sitting with them as they do their homework, perhaps comments such as; ‘Well I can’t do this sum either. I never did like maths...’ or ‘If I can’t solve this problem, I don’t know how the teacher expects you to,’ may actually be instilling a fear of the subject in your little one.

A different approach is required...

So just how much maths do we know?

Leaving your child to battle through screeds of difficult sums alone is something which many parents try to avoid. However, this is a time when the parent has to come to terms with the fact that their maths may have become just a little rusty.

To see how much maths you really can remember, ban the calculators and the Google machine and try our short maths quiz above.

If you sailed through this quiz, then fear not – the maths has no power over you! Transfer your knowledge for the subject to your child and inspire a new generation of maths lovers.

However, if your heart rate began to quicken, your breath became shallow, your mind went blank and you just started selecting random answers to get the test over with, perhaps a new tactic is needed.

Often fear of maths comes down to insecurity in skills or knowledge. When asked to solve percentages, if the first thing that pops into your mind is ‘I’m vaguely familiar with the concept, but I can’t remember how to solve this problem’ or ‘I’ve never did understand percentages’ then perhaps a little brushing up on your skills is necessary.

How can I beat the fear?

Many parents, trying to maintain the I-know-all-things persona, try to figure out the sums or brush up their knowledge of maths topics once their child is in bed to save the embarrassment of having to admit defeat.

In many cases, however, this can actually deepen your fear. Sometimes learning alongside your child, rather than hiding from them that you don’t know the answers either, is a better learning tool for both of you.

There are many great ways that we can do this, and one of the most useful resources that I have found is Khan Academy which provides short video lessons covering a range of maths topics from the first maths lessons at school to first year university level.

So looking back at that percentages problem, if you struggled remembering the concept, this short video may just help: It is worth bearing in mind that fear of maths is a recognised form of anxiety, so there are many tips and techniques to help you feel more relaxed.

A concluding note

Though a self-confessed maths lover, the fear of maths can hit us at any point, whether we are simply figuring out if we have been given the right change at the shop, or are trying to calculate a tip.

Remember to take a deep breath, be nice to the numbers, appreciate their patterns, intricacies, logic and beauty, and they will be nice to in return.

Maths is your friend, I promise!

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