Girls Good at Math, But Teachers May Make Them Anxious About it

Boys and Girls Start School With Equal Footing in Math

"There is a lot of evidence that showing that very early on in the preschool years kids are doing informal everyday math," said Ginsburg. "They learn how to count, they learn about concepts of 'larger than' and they do informal addition."

Ginsburg said children respond happily if they are taught math in interactive ways, or ways that demonstrate concepts such as the base 10 number system.

But, Ginsburg said, "in general, schools train kids not to like math," by forcing meaningless memorization or showing negative attitudes about the subject.

School May Change Children's View of Math

"What happens is that these kids who are naturally little mathematicians get to school, and the school introduces them to this boring stuff," said Ginsburg.

Both Ginsburg and Beilock said studies have shown early elementary school teachers favor reading and writing over teaching math. But that doesn't mean children of either gender prefer math before they get to school.

"If the women teachers transfer these anxieties to the kids, that makes a lot of sense to me," said Ginsburg.

But exactly how or even if the teachers transfer an anxiety is unclear.

Donna Pincus, of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, said anxiety can be contagious under the right conditions.

People can inherit an anxious predisposition from a parent. And certain life experiences -- such as watching a person being bit by a dog or suffering from fear of flying -- can transfer a specific fear.

But Pincus points out the study didn't measure whether the children were becoming anxious about math, developing a phobia or simply becoming bored with it.

"It would have been interesting to see if kids felt more anxious about math," she said.

The study also didn't observe the teachers in the classroom, making it impossible to say whether the children saw a nervous teacher during math class or just a bored one.

"We don't know how the teachers are translating it (math avoidance) to the girls in this case," said Beilock. "We would like to just go in an observe teachers in the classroom and observe exactly what they're doing when they teach math -- or they don't teach math."

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