In a Nutshell: Whether you’re a first-grader facing a nerve-wracking pop-quiz, or a frustrated adult trying to balance a checkbook, anyone can suffer from math anxiety. And, studies indicate that math anxiety can be a major impediment to future success, especially for young children. In fact, research shows children who enter kindergarten without the necessary level of math fluency will likely underperform not just in math, but a variety of areas, impacting advanced math skills as well as how they manage money as adults. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) understands the importance of introducing math concepts to children as early as possible, and works to provide a variety of resources to educators and families, including information on how to support early math fluency. By working together to incorporate math into everyday activities and exploring core math concepts in out-of-the-box ways, you can improve not just your child’s math fluency, but your own math anxiety.
From the freckles on our faces to the size of our feet, we get a lot of things from our parents — and not just through genetics. Any number of traits can be influenced simply by observing our parents, including how we drive, how we vote, how we communicate with the world, and, according to a study published in Psychology Science, how we feel about mathematics.
“Parents’ math anxiety is linked to their children’s math achievement and math anxiety,” stated the authors. “We found that when parents are more math anxious, their children learn significantly less math over the school year and have more math anxiety by the school year’s end.”
So how does your math attitude actually influence your child? In any number of ways, said the authors. Math-anxious adults often have lower motivation to perform math and also are more likely to believe it is not worth practicing math skills. This can directly impact how your children will treat the subject.
“Expressing these beliefs could be demotivating to children, likely reducing the amount of effort they invest in math and reducing the amount of math they learn and remember. As a result of learning less math, these children may then become more math anxious.”
It isn’t hopeless, however. Adults are able to overcome math anxiety with a little help, and a variety of resources exist to help parents become more comfortable using math with their children. At the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a membership organization for early childhood educators, experts publish tools and information for parents and families as well as professionals on how to introduce math concepts to young children in a positive way.
“Recent research shows that math fluency, being familiar with certain core math concepts, is really important for young children,” said Susan Friedman, Senior Director of Content Strategy for NAEYC. “Children who haven’t been exposed to some key math concepts when they enter kindergarten and don’t have math fluency in those areas don’t do as well in school. So it’s very important for young children to have exposure to math concepts through fun, hands-on exploratory experiences.”
Studies Show Childhood Mathematical Literacy Can Improve Your Child’s Financial Future
It’s not always easy to get experts to agree on, well, anything, but, as everyone agrees that reading and writing (literacy) are key to any number of future skills, so, too, do they agree that math fluency is a necessity. One paper sums it up well, saying, “Educators and cognitive scientists agree that the ability to recall basic math facts fluently is necessary for students to attain higher-order math skills.”
Moreover, according to a study done by the Education Commission of the States (ECS), early math fluency is so important to future learning that it can actually impact your child all the way through grade school. “Mathematical thinking is cognitively foundational, and children’s early knowledge of math strongly predicts their later success in math. More surprising is that preschool mathematics knowledge predicts achievement even into high school.”
“Mathematical thinking is cognitively foundational, and children’s early knowledge of math strongly predicts their later success in math” — ECS Study on Math Fluency
Even more surprising, the study discovered a strong correlation between early math fluency and achievement in — well, just about every other subject area.
“[Preschool mathematics knowledge] also predicts later reading achievement even better than early reading skills. In fact, research shows that doing more mathematics increases oral language abilities, even when measured during the following school year. These include vocabulary, inference, independence, and grammatical complexity. Given the importance of mathematics to academic success in all subjects, all children need a robust knowledge of mathematics in their earliest years.”
If that’s not enough to put your math-phobia aside, try this on for size: another study, performed by three Ivy League economists, found a direct correlation between math education and overall financial achievement. Furthermore, they determined that math fluency had a greater impact on financial health than specific financial education courses.
“[Math] education lowers the likelihood of having negative financial income or taking on a second mortgage, which suggests that education causes better financial decision-making. Increasing educational attainment in the U.S. could dramatically improve households’ financial management, reduce bankruptcy and default rates, and potentially support overall financial stability.”
3 Simple Ways to Increase Early Math Fluency in Children
Luckily for the tons of math-phobic parents out there, it isn’t difficult — or scary — to start introducing your young ones to math concepts. Of course, we’re not suggesting your toddler should be able to calculate your mortgage payment; as NAEYC points out, “Preschoolers aren’t yet ready to memorize multiplication tables, but that doesn’t mean they cannot learn and explore math concepts they will use when they move on to primary school.”
“Math can come into children’s lives in play, and in the way parents talk to kids,” said Susan. “I think the idea would be to not think of it as this skill-and-drill, where they have to prove competency of certain things, but that they are introduced to a range of ways of thinking about things, and being exposed to different math concepts.”
1. Find Math Moments in Everyday Life
The easiest way to engage your children in mathematical thinking is simply to find the math skills that are already a part of your everyday activities. These could be obvious correlations, such as measuring ingredients while preparing a meal, to more subtle moments, like sorting laundry.
“You likely use math and math language all the time but may not be aware of it,” stated Jan Greenberg in an NAEYC article, Math Talk Every Day in Every Way. “For example, when you do laundry and wash clothes separately based on color, you’re using the math concepts of sorting and classifying.”
Once you recognize the math skills present in your everyday activities, you can then use those opportunities to engage with your child. For wee ones, focus on your vocabulary to build core concepts, such as quantities (more and less) and spatial relationships (over and under).
“Infants and toddlers are natural mathematicians. Even without adult support, we see infants and toddlers using math concepts to make sense of their world. For example, infants signal they want more food,” said Jan. “More is one of the first math concepts that children construct.”
Another fantastic way to introduce key concepts to your child is through games. Board games, dice games, dominoes, and more, are all packed with simple but important math skills — like subitizing, the ability to instantly identify the quantity of a group of objects, such as the dots on the face of a domino — that can have big impacts.
“If you look at a die and you see three dots or six dots, you’re not counting individual dots — 1, 2, 3, 4. You simply recognize that there are three dots or six dots. That is actually a learned skill that children get by being exposed to those types of objects,” explained Susan. “If a child enters kindergarten and they’ve had some experience playing games that expose them to this concept — it makes some things come easier. If you don’t conceptually understand how many there are, and you’re always counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, you’re going to be a bit behind.”
2. Explore Music to Develop Math Concepts
In many ways, some obvious (and some not), music is akin to applied mathematics. Rhythm, beat, scales, and notes are all essentially mathematical constructs we use to make songs. Because of its mathematical nature, music can be a fantastic way for children to learn core mathematical concepts, including how to compare objects and identify patterns.
Need an example? When your favorite pop song comes on the radio and your little ones start clapping along, they are actually exercising two important math fluency skills: identifying a pattern — and repeating it. These skills will help them in everything from basic multiplication to working with exponents — both key financial math necessities.
“Emphasizing the steady beat by clapping or moving to the music supports children’s development of one-to-one correspondence. One-to-one correspondence is matching up one thing with something else, such as one clap for each syllable,” explained Eugene Geist in an NAEYC article, Support Math Readiness Through Music.
Additionally, as with any of your daily activities, music is another good inspiration for math talk with your child. For instance, discussing music using comparison words, such as louder or faster, as well as counting beats or phrases. You can even explore quantitative concepts, such as more and less.
“Clapping to the steady beat also is a way to emphasize the math concept of more,” said Eugene. “Through music, toddlers can show they understand what more means even when they do not yet understand numbers. For example, if you clap once and then ask, ‘Can you clap more than I clapped?’ a toddler will most likely clap more than once.”
3. Make Math Part of the Story
As with incorporating math talk into other aspects of your child’s day, bringing math to bedtime can have a huge impact on their overall math fluency. The bedtime story, for example, can be a useful tool to introduce math talk in a fun, out-of-the-box way. One resource for math-filled bedtime stories is Bedtime Math.
Bedtime Math, offered both as a book and a mobile app, provides short stories, anecdotes, and interesting paragraphs, including one about the origination of fondue. Math-based questions are presented along with the passage, with a different question for each of three age groups. Bedtime Math helps to make math more accessible by eliminating the skill-and-drill of traditional math problems by presenting math concepts through stories.
And, according to a paper published by Science Magazine, the format can be especially helpful for children whose parents suffer from some level of math anxiety.
“Our study suggests that doing Bedtime Math with your kids can help advance their math achievement over the school year, and this might be especially important for parents who are a little bit nervous about their own math ability,” said lead author, Sian Beilock. “You’re not born a math person or not; it’s something that’s acquired. And every time we talk about it and we integrate it into our daily lives, children may see the importance of it and that math is not something to be fearful of.”
NAEYC’s Educational Resources Can Make a Difference to Teachers & Families
For millions of Americans, of all ages, math is scary. Like any other fear, however, math anxiety can be reduced by repeated positive exposure — and what can be more positive than engaging in fun activities with your young children? Whether you use cooking or clapping, bedclothes or bedtime stories, incorporating important math concepts into your everyday routine is simple, and can help both you and your child improve math fluency and reduce math anxiety.
For more advice on important early childhood education topics, including additional tips on engaging your young ones in math-based activities, make sure to take advantage of the information at NAEYC. Not only do they provide great resources to help parents and families, but it’s a great site to stay in the know about what the teachers know.
“I think NAEYC is a great place for parents to learn about students and their development,” said Susan. “We have a wide range of resources for teachers, but we also provide content for families that is easy to understand and research-based; it is parallel to what our publications are working on for teachers.”