How to Treat Mathphobia

  • BY Cal State East Bay
  • November 9, 2018

Low-income children in historically marginalized communities enter kindergarten as much as 20 months behind their more privileged peers when it comes to math skills. The gap widens as the young students get older, making it less likely that they will master fractions, algebra and the higher math skills needed to succeed in college and enter well-paid, science-based professions including IT, engineering and life sciences.

This fall, funded by a $1 million Excellence in Early STEM Education endowment from the Malavalli Family Foundation, Cal State East Bay will lead a pilot effort seeking to break through this long-standing problem by working with the most powerful educators of children under five — their families. This is the first step in an ambitious family outreach campaign.


The Malavalli family math project is being led by the Institute for STEM Education at Cal State East Bay, which was established by the campus in 2011 to advance STEM education for the diverse population in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.


“Research shows that good math skills in kindergarten are as important a predictor of academic success—in all subjects—as literacy,” said Cal State East Bay President Leroy M. Morishita. “Yet we have not developed an infrastructure to bring all students the skills and confidence they need. Preschool and elementary school teachers in our state spend only one-third the time teaching math to young children than they do teaching reading and writing and we haven’t yet learned how to effectively engage parents and caregivers in helping children develop skills and confidence in math. This is especially true because so many parents are themselves math-phobic.

The pilot project will launch at the Helen Turner Childhood Development Center in a low-income neighborhood in Hayward. Cal State East Bay early math experts and volunteers will engage families, in English and Spanish, in activities such as measuring and counting, with games, books and other materials to take home.

The project builds on early STEM education implemented over the last six years through the Hayward Promise Neighborhood, a community collaboration in the city’s low-income Jackson Triangle neighborhood led by Cal State East Bay with $55 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Education. In 2014, as part of the multiyear grant, 190 neighborhood preschool spaces were created, and preschool teachers were trained in both math and literacy teaching skills. One year later, roughly 90 percent of the preschool students entered kindergarten proficient in math, science, language and literacy.

The success of the initial Hayward Promise work led this year to the opportunity to expand it to another neighborhood in Hayward, with a new five-year award from the U.S. Department of Education.

“This award, along with the Malavalli gift, will allow us to deepen the work in early learning and provide students and families the strong foundation necessary for success throughout the education pipeline,” said Carolyn Nelson, dean of the College of Education and Allied Studies and leader of the Hayward Promise Neighborhood initiative.

“We know that preparing teachers to deliver early math education is powerful,” said Bruce Simon, director of the family math project for the Institute for STEM Education. “We are grateful to the Malavalli family for supporting our efforts now to reach families as well. Our hope is to expand this program into local libraries, and other locations where families have easy access. Math is the gateway to a lifetime of success—and it can be fun.”