Math Tutoring for the Anxious Child: Academic Benefits & Changes in Fear Response

Anxiety comes in many shapes and sizes.  Specific fears, including those of heights, spiders, and public speaking, are common across the lifespan.  For many school-age children, math is a source of significant distress.  Math anxiety is problematic and can be cause for concern for several reasons.  First, children with math anxiety may be more likely to have difficulty concentrating during their studies.  This disruption in concentration may impede their understanding of foundational math topics.  Consistent with other forms of anxiety, children who fear math will likely try to avoid the subject.  Thus, homework time, particularly surrounding math, may result in heightened stress for these children and their parents.  In addition, children with math anxiety may be more likely to avoid educational opportunities and career trajectories that emphasize math skills. Taken together, math anxiety is an important topic worthy of our attention as parents and professionals.

Fortunately, Dr. Vinod Menon and colleagues at Stanford University recently published encouraging findings about the benefits of individualized tutoring for school-age children with math anxiety.  As described in their article in the September edition of The Journal of Neuroscience, Menon and colleagues found that third grade students with high levels of math anxiety reported significant reductions in anxiety following an 8-week one-to-one math-tutoring program.  Prior to the tutoring, children with high math anxiety exhibited different patterns of brain response while doing arithmetic (i.e., increased activity in areas of the brain associated with processing negative emotions and fear) than children with low math anxiety.  Interestingly, following the tutoring, there were no significant differences in brain response between the high and low anxiety groups.  Menon and colleagues attributed this reduction in self-reported anxiety and change in brain response to children’s repeated exposure to math.  Notably, this explanation is consistent with the large literature supporting the effectiveness of behavioral exposure in treatment of anxiety. With regard to benefits in math performance, both groups of children with high and low anxiety exhibited improvements in math skills following the tutoring.

If you are the parent of a child with anxiety related to math (or other academic areas), talk to your child and his/her teacher(s) about how this anxiety may be impacting his/her learning.  

If you would like to receive more information about treatment for anxiety from Georgetown Psychology Associates, click HERE.