Kids who get the jitters before a math test may actually have different brain functions than kids without math anxiety, according to a new study.
Researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine recruited about 50 second and third graders and separated them into either a high-math anxiety group or a low-anxiety group based on a standard questionnaire they modified for 7- to 9-year-olds. They scanned the children’s brains while the kids did addition and subtraction problems.
They found that children with a high level of math anxiety were slower at solving problems and were less accurate than children with lower math anxiety.
“Children who said they had math anxiety had greater responses in the areas of the brain implicated in processing negative emotions like fear, particularly the amygdala,” said Vinod Menon, a co-author and professor of child psychiatry, neurology and neuroscience at Stanford. “We also saw reduced activity in areas normally associated with mathematical problem solving.”
Math anxiety in young children has not been widely studied, and there are no clearly established criteria for diagnosis, Menon said.
“Math anxiety is underappreciated in young children, but it is very real and very stimulus-specific,” Menon said. “These children do not have high levels of general anxiety.”
It’s unclear what type of long-term impact math anxiety has on children since it’s an area that hasn’t been widely studied in this age group, according to Menon. But previous research in adolescents and adults has found that math anxiety led many people to avoid advanced math classes, which later affected their career choices.
The findings, the authors said, could eventually be used to develop ways to address this specific type of anxiety, which “has significant implications for an individual’s long-term academic and professional success,” they wrote.