Tutoring Makes Kids Less Scared of Math, But Not Better at It

A new study says tutoring can reduce math anxiety by altering the fear circuits in kids' brains.

School tutor with young boy student
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On the last day of school this spring, my daughter brought home a 40-page math booklet that she had to complete by the first day of fourth grade. This juggernaut of a summer homework assignment was majorly anxiety producing—and not just for my kid. Her dad and I struggled to explain new concepts and ideas to her, and in the end I fear we increased her math anxiety more than we helped.

The answer to undoing any harm we caused may lie in hiring her a tutor, but not for the reason you would think. According to a new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, tutoring can significantly reduce math anxiety by altering the fear circuits in kids' brains. Surprisingly, tutoring in the subject doesn't really improve performance that much, but its effects on the nerves a kid feels while solving problems are remarkable.

The study's senior author, Vinod Menon, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, estimates between 17 and 30 percent of elementary- and middle-school age kids have math anxiety. Tutoring helps them by basically acting like exposure therapy. Much like making a person who's afraid of snakes spend increasing amounts of time with the reptiles to get over their fear, a child stressed out by algebra or geometry gets less stressed by spending more time solving word problems and equations.

In the study, researchers scanned the brains of kids with both low and high mathematics anxiety. They discovered those with high anxiety showed higher levels of activation in the amygdala, the region responsible for processing fearful stimuli and emotions. Both groups of kids then received one-on-one tutoring in the subject three times a week, getting exposed to lots of problems as well as help and encouragement. Eight weeks later, both groups improved in performance by about the same amount, but the group with higher anxiety showed brain scans like those with low anxiety: Their amygdalae had calmed down.

"Repeated exposure can make the child feel more in control of situations involving mathematical problem solving, thereby diminishing their math anxiety," the study's authors wrote.

It's interesting to think that, for some kids, doing algebra is like hanging out with a bunch of scary snakes. It makes me feel a little bad for getting short with my daughter when she whined and resisted doing her packet this summer. I would have had more compassion if she had acted that way about visiting the reptile room at the zoo, but to her brain's amygdala, the two situations are exactly the same. Fear is fear, whatever we're afraid of.

Ellen Sturm Niz is a New York City-based editor and writer who would like to have a brain scan to see what's going on in there. Check out Ellen's new Etsy shop and follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.

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