Parents who are not comfortable with maths do more harm than good when they help their children with their maths homework, according to research by Erin Maloney and her colleagues. They found that when parents are anxious about maths, their children learn significantly less maths over the school year and become more anxious about maths themselves by the end of the school year—but only if the maths-anxious parents report providing frequent help with maths homework. Notably, when parents reported helping with maths homework less often, children’s math achievement and attitudes were not related to parents’ math anxiety.

The research was carried out with 438 first and second class children in America. In a measure of maths anxiety, parents rated how anxious they would feel during different situations (e.g., “reading a cash register receipt after you buy something,” “studying for a maths test”) on a 5-point scale (1 = not at all, 2 = a little, 3 = a fair amount, 4 = much, 5 = very much). They also completed an assessment of how often they helped their child with their math homework. The children’s attitude to maths and level of attainment was assessed at the beginning and end of the school year. Parent’s educational level did not have any effect on the results. Notably, even if parents were competent in the type of basic math that first- and second-grade children encounter, this did not preclude them from having feelings of anxiety when faced with their children’s maths homework.

The authors speculate on how these effects might occur. Previous research has shown that individuals with high maths anxiety tend to believe that maths is not useful and have low motivation to succeed in maths. It is possible that parents with high maths anxiety convey a great deal of negativity when they help their child with math home-work. This might reduce the amount of effort the children invest in math and so reduce the amount of maths they learn and remember. As a result of learning less maths, these children may then become more maths anxious.

Another possibility is that if the parents have a high fear of failure in mathematics, then they may be more likely to express negativity when their child is struggling, which in turn could cause their children to also learn to fear failing in mathematics and to avoid engaging in challenging situations. It is also suggested that parents with high maths anxiety might try to teach their children using strategies that are different from those that taught in the classroom, which could lead to confusion and negative affect in the child.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that, even when maths-anxious parents have good intentions, their home-work help may backfire, decreasing children’s math learning and increasing their math anxiety across the school year. So if you don’t like maths, don’t help your children.

Irish teachers, check out our EPV courses: Maths Development, Maths Anxiety, Dyscalculia and Assessment, click here for July 2021 or click here for August 2021.

*Maloney, E. A., Ramirez, G., Gunderson, E. A., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2015). Intergenerational effects of parents’ math anxiety on children’s math achievement and anxiety. Psychol Sci, 26(9), 1480-1488. doi: 10.1177/0956797615592630*