Up until around fourth grade, I was pretty good at math. Multiplication tables were like puzzles. I tested several levels higher than my grade, but since I couldn’t jump all the way to a middle school curriculum, my teachers didn’t know what to do with me. Smart, but bored, 12-year-olds are quite unhappy kids.
I have clear memories of doing math homework with my dad in middle school. I would spend hours sitting at our faux-wood kitchen table with the rubbery edges, lined paper and algebra textbooks splayed out in front of me, holding back hot, angry tears while my dad explained for the fiftieth time how to calculate simple percentages. I can still feel the way my forehead rested against that table, hiding my face in the dark of my folded arms.
A new report out of the University of Cambridge, released on Thursday, provides a little vindication for my pissed-off, anxious preteen self. Looking at the experiences of a total of 2,700 primary and secondary students in the UK and Italy, the researchers found that primary and secondary school girls had higher levels of both maths anxiety and general anxiety than boys.
The study also focuses on how parents and teachers shape math performance and attitudes, perhaps without even realizing it. In the same way that anxious parents can shape their children’s anxiety, math-anxious mentors can shape how kids view their own math anxiety.
"Teachers, parents, brothers and sisters and classmates can all play a role in shaping a child's maths anxiety," study co-author Ros McLellan said in the press release. "Parents and teachers should also be mindful of how they may unwittingly contribute to a child's maths anxiety. Tackling their own anxieties and belief systems in maths might be the first step to helping their children or students."
It’s not news that math anxiety is real—since the early 2000s, it’s been defined by clinicians as “a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in … ordinary life and academic situations.”
Researchers have been trying to figure out what causes math anxiety, and which children experience it the most. In 2012, a team led by Dr. Amy Devine at the University of Cambridge found no gender differences for mathematics performance in girls and boys, but levels of math anxiety were higher for girls. In 2017, University of Cambridge researchers developed the Abbreviated Math Anxiety Scale for students aged 8-13, to quantify how math anxiety is experienced by those kids.
The new study builds on previous research by highlighting the importance of teachers and parents’ own math anxieties impacting students. Most students that the researchers talked to said that their anxiousness started when the math topics became more challenging, and they felt like they couldn’t do them. Another reason the students’ said they were struggling was because multiple teachers were teaching them math, and it became confusing across teaching styles.
“Importantly—and surprisingly—this new research suggests that the majority of students experiencing maths anxiety have normal to high maths ability,” Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said in a press release.
Several of the excerpts of the interviews conducted by researchers with math-anxious kids are heartbreaking: Many described feelings that they knew the answers but panicked, or tried to battle through initial confusion. One child, around 9 or 10 years old, said:
“Once, I think it was the first day and he picked on me, and I just kind of burst into tears because everybody was staring at me and I didn't know the answer. Well I probably knew it but I hadn't thought it through.”
Another described doing a fractions test:
“It means like enormously [nervous], and enormously means like massively… I felt very unwell and I was really scared and because my table's in the corner, I kind of just like tried to not be in the lesson.”
For me, something changed from fifth grade onward, and throughout the remedial college courses and hours spent hovering over more thick textbooks, I wondered if I had ADD, dyslexia with numbers (known as dyscalculia), or if I was just kinda dumb.
Even today, I’d rather go into debt trying to foot the whole bill for a group dinner rather than doing the math to divide it up. I send incorrect Venmo payments embarrassingly often, despite checking the math over and over.
I don’t blame my teachers for not knowing what to do with me in fourth grade, or my dad for getting just as annoyed as I did at that kitchen table. But I do wonder what would have happened if my math anxiety as a child would have been acknowledged as such. Then, maybe, I could have moved past it. And my friends would have to send fewer Venmo payments back to me to correct.