Healthy Living

Math Anxiety Affects First Graders Too

Image REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

Children, as young as first graders, suffer from math anxiety. Surprisingly this anxiety affects kids who have good working memory - something that makes them work out math problems easier than the rest, say University of Chicago researchers.

"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. 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," said Sian Beilock, professor in psychology at the University of Chicago.

According to the researchers, children who fear math will have lower math scores, despite actually being good with numbers.

The study involved 88 first graders and 66 second graders from an urban school. The children were assessed for their academic abilities and their working memory. Children's fear of math was assessed by asking them how afraid they'd be if they were asked to solve a math problem on a board in the class.

In the study, researchers found that children who had lower levels of working memory actually did better at tests because they learned other tricks of doing math like counting numbers on fingers. Interestingly, these children did better even when they were 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 writes in the article.

Researchers say that children's math ability can be improved. "When anxiety is regulated or reframed, students often see a marked increase in their math performance," the researchers write.

Medical Daily had earlier reported that math anxiety affects girls more than boys as math is considered a masculine subject.

Express fear through words

According to researchers, children can regulate some of the math anxiety by writing down about their fears. The technique is called "expressive writing" and it helps students get over their fears.

Young children who can't write can practice the technique by picture drawing. Additionally, teachers can help take some stress off students by helping them identify with exams as a challenge rather than a threat, researchers write in the article "Math Anxiety, Working Memory and Math Achievement in Early Elementary School" in the Journal of Cognition and Development