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Stanford team shows that one-on-one tutoring relieves math anxiety in children

Math-worksheetKids who suffer from anxiety about doing math problems can find relief in a program of one-on-one tutoring, which not only improves their math skills but also fixes abnormal responses in the fear circuits in their brains.

That's the finding from a new study published today in the Journal of Neuroscience. The study is great news for those seeking relief from a common but often-overlooked problem.

From our press release about the research:

"The most exciting aspect of our findings is that cognitive tutoring not only improves performance, but is also anxiety-reducing," said the study's senior author, Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. "It was surprising that we could, in fact, get remediation of math anxiety."

Even if they are good at math, many children feel anxious about doing math problems. For some, the anxiety persists throughout life, discouraging them from pursuing advanced math and science classes as well as careers that rely on mathematical expertise. Yet almost no attention has been paid to how to help alleviate this problem.

"Math anxiety has been under the radar," said the study's lead author, research associate Kaustubh Supekar, PhD. "People think it will just go away, but for many children and adults, it doesn't."

The researchers tested the idea that math anxiety could be helped with the same tactics used for phobias, which can be relieved by exposure therapy. In this approach, the person suffering the phobia is repeatedly exposed to the thing they fear, but in the context of a safe environment. The eight-week tutoring program, which covered a series of basic addition lessons, gave kids an opportunity to repeatedly tackle math concepts with the help of someone who could give positive, appropriate guidance to get past any bottlenecks in their understanding.

The team plans to conduct future research to find out what elements of the tutoring were most important in alleviating kids' fear of math.

Previously: New research tracks "math anxiety" in the brain, Stanford team uses brain scans to forecast development of kids' math skills and A not so fearful symmetry: Applying neuroscience findings t0 teaching math
Photo by Hana Tichá

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