Maths anxiety, working memory and self-concept

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Jaén, Spain, and published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology looks at the relationship between maths anxiety and maths performance in primary school children, and also the possible mediating role of working memory and maths self-concept.

A total of 167 pupils in grades 3 and 5 (age 8–12 years) took part in the study. Each pupil completed a set of questionnaires to assess maths anxiety and self-concept as well as their mathematical performance. Working memory was assessed using two backward span tasks. Teachers were also asked to rate each pupils’ maths achievement.

As expected, results showed that pupils who demonstrated higher levels of anxiety about maths tended to have lower scores on maths outcomes such as ability, problem‐solving and teacher‐rated maths achievement. However, this relationship was lessened once the effects of working memory and self-concept were considered. The researchers suggest, therefore, that it is worth taking into consideration working memory and self-concept when designing interventions aimed at helping pupils with maths anxiety.

Source: Math anxiety and math performance in children: The mediating roles of working memory and math self‐concept (May 2017), British Journal of Educational Psychology, Volume 87, Issue 4

Outcomes of a single-session intervention for teenage anxiety and depression

A study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry examines whether a half-hour, self-administered, single-session intervention (SSI) teaching growth mindset can reduce depression and anxiety and strengthen perceived control in high-risk teenagers.

Teenagers (aged 12–15) and their parents completed separate baseline questionnaires about the young person’s anxiety and depressive symptoms, which were then repeated over a nine-month follow-up period. Teenagers also reported on their perceived behavioural control. The teenagers were then randomised to receive either a 30-minute computer-guided intervention teaching growth mindset (the belief that personality is malleable), or a supportive therapy control.

Compared to the control group, teenagers who received the SSI had greater improvements in parent-reported depression (effect size = +0.60) and anxiety (+0.28), as well as self-reported depression (+0.32) and perceived behavioural control (+0.29) from baseline to nine-month follow-up. The effects of the intervention on self-reported anxiety were +0.36.

The report concludes that the findings suggest a promising, scalable SSI for reducing anxiety and depression in high-risk teenagers.

Source: A single-session growth mindset intervention for adolescent anxiety and depression: 9-month outcomes of a randomized trial (September 2017), The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

Does anxiety affect performance, or poor performance cause anxiety?

Mathematics anxiety (MA) is the state of discomfort around the performance of mathematical tasks. Does MA cause poor performance in mathematics, or is it poor performance in mathematics that causes MA? The question is important, because it affects the “treatment” that results. Should the focus be on improving students’ confidence, or their maths ability?

A review in Frontiers in Psychology considers the evidence supporting the two models – The Deficit Theory, which claims that poor performance leads to high anxiety, or The Debilitating Anxiety Theory, which claims that anxiety reduces performance by affecting the pre-processing, processing, and retrieval of information.

The evidence is conflicting – there is research to support the Deficit Theory, with the strongest evidence coming from longitudinal studies and studies of mathematical disabilities. Similarly, there is support for the Debilitating Anxiety Model from studies across all ages that have manipulated anxiety to reveal either a deterioration or improvement in performance. The paper considers that this is indicative of a Reciprocal Theory, where MA and poor performance reinforce each other in a vicious cycle. This in turn suggests that interventions to address MA should target both the anxiety and mathematics performance.

Source: The Chicken or the Egg? The Direction of the Relationship Between Mathematics Anxiety and Mathematics Performance (2016), Frontiers in Psychology.

Worrying times for adolescents

Although worrying is a normal response to an anticipated threat, excessive worry can be problematic. A new article in the British Journal of Health Psychology analyses the development of worry throughout childhood.

The authors used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), a longitudinal population-based cohort study that enrolled pregnant women in 1991 and 1992. Mothers completed self-report questionnaires on their child’s development and health at regular intervals, including on their child’s level of worry and the impact on daily functioning at age 7, 10, and 13.

All reported analyses were conducted on the sample of mothers who completed the questionnaire at all three ages (N = 2,227), and the authors took the mothers’ own anxiety levels into account. Mothers reported a peak of worrisome thoughts in their children at age 10. Emotional disruption was highest at 10, and the highest level of interference in daily life was observed at 13, especially for girls. Advanced pubertal status and worry frequency were positively associated for boys at 10 and girls at 13. Advanced puberty at 10 was also associated with overall higher worry frequency and emotional disruption.

The authors conclude that their findings align with existing research on patterns of childhood depression, but note that the generalisability and validity of the results might be restricted by the sole reliance on mothers’ reports of child worry.

Source: The Development of Worry Throughout Childhood: Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children Data (2015), British Journal of Health Psychology.