Does your little one have a panic attack every time the math teacher walks into the classroom? A new study has found that kids who receive help from a tutor experience less anxiety than those who don’t.
A team of researchers from Stanford University looked at school kids who experienced math related anxiety, and concluded that those who received help from a tutor experienced changes in the fear circuits of their brains and were less nervous when asked to solve an algebra problem.
An interesting observation is that the change was not due to s better understanding of the subject or an improved skill set. Regardless of whether or not the kids got better at math, they still experienced less anxiety. In fact, most kids did not show much of a difference in their performance after being tutored.
Vinod Menon, senior author on the study and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences from the Stanford University School of Medicine, gave a statement saying that “Now we can say that these differences [in performance] are not really related to performance differences”.
He went on to add that “They’re really related to anxiety, and that gives us a better sense of the mechanisms by which this is working”. This is an important finding as professor Menon estimates that somewhere between 17 percent (17%) and 30 percent (30%) of all elementary kids and middle-school kids suffer from math anxiety.
The mechanism behind tutoring as a treatment is the same as the one behind exposure therapy – making the subjects face the thing they fear. Whether an individual is terrified of snakes, spiders or math, frequently exposing them to this perceived threat can help them feel less afraid over time.
For their study, professor Menon and his team gave a group of third-graders questionnaires to help them asses how much math anxiety each student experienced.
The next step was to separate them into groups of kids with high levels of math anxiety and kids with low levels of math anxiety. And when the research team scanned their brains to look at what activity each group had when solving a math problem, one key difference was revealed.
It turns out that kids who experience high levels of math anxiety have more activity in the amygdala, the brain region known for processing fearful stimuli and fearful emotions. It’s the same area where people who suffer from phobias or anxiety disorders also show elevated activity.
Professor Menon explained that math stimuli can engage, hyper-activate and provoke “the emotion centers of the brain” in kids with high levels of math anxiety even at very young ages.
The subjects were then made to see a math tutor three (3) times a week for one on one sessions. On top of exposing them to more math problems, the tutors also helped kids gain a better understanding of the exercises that caused them the most grief, and encouraged them when they gave a right answer.
Just two (2) months after tutoring started, both the kids with high levels of math anxiety and the kids with low levels of math anxiety demonstrated an improved skill set. Both made an equal amount of progress, but even so, when the researchers scanned their brains a second time, they noticed that the brains of the kids with high levels of math anxiety no longer resembled those of people battling phobias. Instead they resembled those of kids with low levels of math anxiety.
The findings were published earlier this week, in The Journal of Neuroscience.
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