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Changing math attitudes, one family at a time

What an experiment with pre-service education students unveiled about math anxiety and how to combat it -- in students, parents and teachers.

10 min read

Voice of the Educator

Changing math attitudes, one family at a time


We are creatures of habit; we tend to resist change. It could be a new travel route or doctor, or a new curriculum or teaching practice. Apprehension and caution commonly surround new ideas.

Common Core State Standards-Math is one such change that people tend to resist. CCSS-M was introduced ten years ago but is still generally not accepted. Could it be a simple misunderstanding?

One need not look far to find evidence of a dislike of math and a frequent acceptance of not doing well in the discipline. Major news publications, such as The Washington Post, and social media have run stories of educated parents struggling to help their child complete his or her math homework. Many parents’ beliefs about effective mathematics instruction are inconsistent with current research. Expectations for success in math is often influenced by gender, according to a 2011 research paper. I have sat across the table from parents during parent-teacher conferences who easily accept poor performance in math for their child because “I was never good at math, and they probably won’t be either.” Even comic strips occasionally take a shot at the complexity of math and the tolerance of not being successful in math. I have yet to see the same for language arts.

For the last several years, as I make new acquaintances and they learn that I teach math, I often hear comments like “I never was very good at math”, “I don’t like the new math”, or “Doesn’t two plus two still equal four? Why did it have to change?” Explanations about a focus on developing critical thinking and problem solving skills typically fall on deaf ears. Parents don’t understand the purpose behind changes in math instruction, and are therefore frustrated.

I have long been a champion of family engagement in education. When a partnership between families and schools exists, a student has a better chance for success. Parents are their child’s first teacher, and children’s attitudes are going to reflect the attitudes of their parents. Is it possible to improve a child’s attitude by addressing their parents’ attitudes? If a parent has a positive attitude about math, is it more likely that their child will have a positive attitude about math? This thought helped form the hypothesis for an interesting research study in math education.

Parents and Math Homework

Parents’ attitudes about math may influence their child’s achievement in mathematics and the development of math anxiety, according to a study published in 2011 by researchers Elizabeth A. Gunderson, Gerardo Ramirez, Susan C. Levine and Sian L. Beilock. Many times, helping children with math homework represents a frustrating experience for parents and children alike. Parents try to explain computation the way they learned it a generation ago. Children partially learned a different strategy or algorithm earlier that day but can’t put all of the pieces together. They can’t make sense of the procedural-based traditional algorithm parents are showing them. Parents can’t make sense of the concept-based algorithm or invented strategy the child is showing them. The session often ends in tears.

In our study, education majors in my math methods classes invited parents of elementary students to participate in weekly sessions that would teach them about helping their child with math. We explained the study and got consent for both child and parent. We also developed math attitude surveys, one for the parents and another for the children. We considered factors such as chapter tests and homework, but benchmark assessments carried the most weight for pre- and post-study comparison.

Each week, my students would contact the classroom teachers in the school to determine what content they would unpack this week in math class. The education students would review the curricular materials associated with that content and prepare lessons to teach the parents. Once a week, parents would attend a meeting with their assigned education student and learn about how the math content would be presented to their child that week. The parents had an opportunity to learn about the way questions would be asked, and how the concepts would be developed. They learned the alternative algorithms their child would be using, and ways in which to ask questions that would support the development of critical thinking for their child. 

Our aim was to help improve parents’ confidence in and attitude about math. We made the assumption that once the parent’s attitude about math improved, that their child’s attitude would improve as well. We worked with parents, not the child that was struggling. In doing so, the parent-child relationship became stronger. We repeatedly heard parents express how this experience improved their self-image, as they became a “homework hero” in their child’s eyes. At the end of the year, the parent and child math attitudinal survey was repeated for comparison.

What We Learned

We began this experiment with many assumptions, some of which were accurate and others which were misguided. We assumed that parents would be anxious to hear about current trends in math education and learn how to help their child with homework. This was one of the misguided assumptions! The experiment took place over a four-year period. For both of the first two years, we provided services in a suburban school district. The third year, we offered the program in the same suburban setting and added a rural district. The fourth year, we tried to add the services in an urban district. 

Year one, we had minimal participation. Year two was the best year where we had moderate participation. By the third year, there was minimal participation in the rural setting, and in year four literally no parents participated in the urban district. Over the four year history of the project, we easily sent over 100 invitations for every one parent that participated. It made us wonder why. We had data to show positive results. All of the surveys about satisfaction and quality of the project were positive. Why were parents not interested in the help?

We got the answer during a frank, informal chat with parents who did participate, one of which was the President of the PTO. 

We focused on math. Had we focused on reading, parent participants predicted a much greater turnout. The parents went on to say that they are intimidated by math and that it was difficult to make themselves enter the room the first night and commit to doing math on a regular basis, knowing that their inability to do elementary math might be exposed. The thought of doing math heightened their anxiety and made them uncomfortable.

At the start of the study, we predicted that as parents participated in the study and learned new algorithms and strategies associated with Common Core State Standards math, that their confidence level would rise. That was confirmed. We also predicted that from the beginning to the end of the study that parent attitudes about math would improve, and they did. Associated with that, we predicted that as parent attitudes about math improved, so would their child’s attitude about math. It did not! With the tool we used, we did not uncover low level attitudes about math in the child at the beginning of the year. In the survey, the child’s attitudes about math started high and ended high.

One outcome that was very positive was student achievement. A comparison between increase in parent attitude and student benchmark assessments at the end of the year revealed that as parent math attitudes improved, so did student achievement. Students whose parents participated in the study and received weekly instruction on the math content their child was learning in school made greater improvement in benchmark scores from the beginning-of-year to end-of-year benchmark assessments when compared to classmates with the same teacher whose parents did not participate.

Along the way, we heard many stories of hope for math education. Some children came to the weekly sessions with parents, and engaged in non-academic activities during that time. Several times we heard success stories about children passing math tests with record high scores, about students understanding fractions for the first time, and even being on the Honor Roll for the first time — having been kept from it every time by the math grade. These were definitely reasons for celebration.

Bonus: Experiential Learning

The study was small but offered great promise. Perhaps the most significant unexpected finding was from our pre-service teachers. 

Research shows elementary education majors nationwide tend to have a higher level of math anxiety than other majors on college campuses. A 2010 paper by Eugene Geist shows that pre-service teachers with a high level of math anxiety are apt to pass that math anxiety on to students in their elementary classrooms. These teachers tend to use less effective teaching strategies and their anxiety affects how they assess their ability at mathematics. 

Teaching elementary math concepts and alternative algorithms to parents helped boost my pre-service teachers’ confidence in their ability to teach math. It greatly reduced their math anxiety.

And it helped their employment opportunities. All the teachers that supported this project landed teaching jobs. Their involvement in this project caught the interest of prospective employers. It was common for questions about teacher candidate participation in this project to be part of the conversation during reference checks. Several teacher candidates reported that their participation in this project helped them in the job application process. It was a common point of discussion during interviews. Prospective employers were reportedly excited that these applicants were involved in educational research, and ecstatic that the topic was parent engagement and math. Some of the pre-service teachers went on to lead Family Math Nights in their own schools. One reported that her philosophy on how to teach students and parents was influenced by participating in this project, and that she is more understanding and patient. Universally, pre-service teacher participants reported that the project benefited their students, their students’ parents and their fellow teachers. Several said it improved their communication with students and parents across disciplines, and helped them realize that it takes many different strategies to reach all students. The full impact of the project was realized when, after her first “Meet the Teacher” night, one participant telephoned to say she told parents at that first meeting that she is committed to weekly communication with them about the strategies used in math class.

As educators, we have a responsibility to proactively help parents, families, and the public to update their knowledge and beliefs about teaching and learning mathematics. When I think of the number of pre-service teachers involved in this project, and the number of children and parents they will potentially help, it gives me hope that someday we will no longer accept “I never was really good at math” as a reason for a child’s poor performance.

Carol Buckley is an associate professor of mathematics at Messiah College in Pennsylvania.


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