CHICAGO — Female elementary school teachers who are anxious about math may undermine girls' confidence and unwittingly encourage them to believe that boys are better at the subject, research at the University of Chicago shows.
The ill effects go beyond stereotypes: Girls who bought into the notion actually performed worse in math, chipping away at their self-assurance in related fields, such as science, the study found.
The effect was limited to girls — a finding that could have far-reaching implications in a country where more than 90 percent of elementary teachers are women. Researchers believe girls were affected by female teachers' anxieties because children generally emulate the behavior and attitudes of same-gender adults.
Researchers said the next step is to determine what teachers did or said to transfer their anxieties.
"There are lots of questions to be answered about what's going on in the classroom," said Sian Beilock, a psychology professor and lead author of the report "Female Teachers' Math Anxiety Affects Girls' Math Achievement," published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month.
The findings are the product of a yearlong study of 17 first- and second-grade teachers and their students.
Researchers first assessed teachers' feelings about the subject. Then, at both the beginning and end of the school year, they measured students' math achievement and gender stereotypes about math.
At the beginning of the year, student achievement was unrelated to teachers' math anxiety. But by the end of the year, the more anxious their female teachers were about math, the more likely girls were to endorse the view that boys are better at math. Girls who bought into the stereotype scored six points lower than other students.