Are you worried about passing math struggles on to your kids?

As a math teacher and a mom, I often hear other parents’ “math stories.”  They find out that I am a math teacher and open up to me. There is a remarkably strong pattern to these stories.

Here is how it often goes--

I hated math in school, starting in elementary grades. I chose a major and a career that didn’t focus on math. Then my child started elementary school.  I hoped that all would go well, but I feared she would have the same stressful math experiences I had had in school. Now she is struggling and hates math. I don’t know how to stop the cycle, especially since I hated school math, too.

If you worry about passing your own struggles and math anxiety on to your kids, researchers have good news.

Your child CAN be successful at math.

Math ability isn’t fixed. It can be grown.

Have you ever seen someone shrug and say, “I’m just not a reading person”? Probably not. Yet, many people hold tight to the belief that they are “not a math person.” It can be extremely difficult to let go of this long-held belief of your own ability. But, if you are a parent, there are good reasons to read the research and reconsider.

In this video, Stanford University professor Jo Boaler discusses what researchers have learned about the brain. She explains that your average child can excel at K-12 math, that the brain has huge potential to grow, and that every new learning experience can change a person’s ability. Success at K-12 math has much more to do with mindset and hard work than inborn capacity.

Your child CAN feel confident and relaxed about math.

Math anxiety is learned, not inherited.

Recently, a study at the University of Chicago showed that math anxiety can be passed forward from parents to children. Another study showed that math anxiety can begin as early as first or second grade.

While many parents fear that math stress is genetic, the researchers found that “parents’ math anxiety negatively affected children only when they frequently helped them with math homework.” This tells us that although we can accidentally teach math anxiety to our children, they are not born to it. The researchers do not recommend that parents stop helping their children with math. Instead, they recommend supporting parents in changing the tone.

On that note...

Here are my top four tips for breaking the cycle of math struggle and anxiety, and for setting your child on a path to success.


1) Focus on emotions. 

Math anxiety is real for many children, but it is not necessarily connected to their math skills and abilities. If you are also math-anxious, you can work on modeling good self-care and lowering anxiety during math time. Keep working. Help your child see that it's OK to be imperfect. Stay calm, and use relaxation techniques where needed. Take care of your own emotions first. If you are getting stressed out, it's best not to force yourself to continue. Ask your child's teacher to provide extra help on that assignment. 

2) Solidify basic skills, but don’t use a timer.

Ask your child’s teacher which basic skills you should focus on at home. Many elementary students need help with math facts (addition/subtraction/multiplication/division) because the skill of fluent computation takes time to develop. If you do “fact-practice” at home, avoid timed activities. These have been shown  to increase anxiety and make it harder for your child to think.

3) Bring math into your home in a fun way, not via homework. 

Math-anxious parents often avoid math at home aside from required homework. According to a press release from the University of Chicago, however, “... new findings demonstrate that structured, positive interactions around math at home can cut the link between parents’ uneasiness about math and children’s low math achievement.” So play math at home!

4) Change the conversation about mistakes and math ability. 

When you talk to your child about math, emphasize that math intelligence isn't born but grown, through solving hard problems. Make mistakes, figure them out, think, understand, repeat. If your child easily solves a lot of math problems without errors, that math is probably too easy. Mistakes and struggle don’t mean a child is bad at math -- they are an essential part of learning. Get more tips for responding to your child’s mistakes in a positive way. >


There is a pattern of math struggle in families, but there is much we can do to break that cycle. What does your family do to break the “bad at math” cycle?