Sian Beilock said the youngsters whose school work is hurt the most by math anxiety tend to be the highest achievers. That's because anxiety disrupts working memory, which is typically strongest in those students.
"You can think of working memory as a kind of 'mental scratchpad' that allows us to 'work' with whatever information is temporarily flowing through consciousness," Beilock said. "It's especially important when we have to do a math problem and juggle numbers in our head. Working memory is one of the major building blocks of IQ."
Beilock and three colleagues are the authors of "Math Anxiety, Working Memory and Math Achievement in Early Elementary School," previewed on the website of the Journal of Cognition and Development.
The team found that less adept students tend to deal with arithmetic in other ways than working memory, like counting on their fingers. But they found math anxiety can put students who do depend on working memory as much as a half-year behind those without it.
The study involved 88 first-graders and 66 second-graders in a big-city school system. The team found about half of high-achieving students suffer from math anxiety.
The researchers suggest ways of dealing with math anxiety, including having students write about it before they have to deal with arithmetic.