Study links math time with parents to success in school

For math-anxious parents, “even a modest increase in high-quality parent-child math talk could boost their children’s math achievement.”

By Anjali Dhillon

Increased parental involvement in math at home considerably improves children’s math skills throughout the school year, according to new research released by the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago.

The study, “Math at home adds up to achievement in school,” was published in the October 9 edition of Science. Ph.D. students Talia Berkowitz and Marjorie Schaeffer are the lead authors of the study, and professors Susan Levine and Sian Beilock are senior authors.

For this research, Schaeffer and Berkowitz enlisted first grade children and their primary caregivers from 587 families across 22 Chicago-area schools. In their study, the authors reason that it is important to pay attention to math education at that age because first grade students “who begin school behind peers in math tend to stay behind in later grades.”

“We wanted to look at first graders as they are at the beginning of organized math instruction…. Previous work from our lab showed that math anxiety develops as early as first grade,” Schaeffer said.

Parents and children were asked to use an iPad application called Bedtime Math. The app provided short numerical stories, math-related reading passages, and word problems on which families would work together several times a week over the span of the school year.

Children’s math skills were assessed in one-on-one sessions with trained research attendants twice: once at the beginning of the school year before they were introduced to Bedtime Math, and once at the end of the school year.

The new research shows that it is important for parents to engage their children in math at home at a young age in order to create a strong foundation for their future studies.

“We need to bolster math achievement particularly for kids who come from underserved backgrounds and help them build [math] skills early on, because once you build their interests and once they enter school prepared, there is a snowball effect, where the achievement keeps going,” Levine said.

The study suggests that while most parents feel responsible for developing their children’s reading and language skills, they believe math development should be left up to the school system.

While this research concedes that some math achievement may be attributed to an inherent capacity for the subject, it found that the simple act of parents talking with their children about math significantly contributed to mathematical success.

In an earlier study it was noted that many parents feel anxious about math and are less likely to conduct effective math interactions at home. Whether parents are high-math-anxious was determined by a survey prior to the study, questioning parents on their comfort with answering math problems on the spot, calculating everyday math such as tips, and solving a problem in front of friends. The more uncomfortable parents are about math, the more high-math-anxious they tend to be.

The authors found that with anxious parents, “even a modest increase in high-quality parent-child math talk could boost their children’s math achievement.”

Their research suggests that using the app will be even more beneficial for anxious parents because it enables parents and children to discuss math at home with a written script, taking the pressure off the parents. Bedtime Math serves as a consistent resource for both low-math-anxious and high-math-anxious parents, nearly eliminating the difference in the quality of math lessons at home.

The study cites success in math as essential for long-term benefits. It stipulates that with strong standings in math, children will be on trajectories to academic success and careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), for which there is a growing demand.