Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered that personalized, one-on-one tutoring not only helps students develop their math skills, but for children with high anxiety about doing math, it can actually help them reduce that anxiety. The study looked at students with both high and low anxiety about solving math questions and discovered a direct fear response for those children with higher anxiety.

Math anxiety is not well studied, beyond the fact that it can prevent children from pursuing math past their required classes, keeping them from careers that require more complicated math as well. Math anxiety develop in young children, but it can continue to affect them as adults. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much study of this anxiety until now.

What this study illustrates, thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), is that children with high math anxiety showed activation of the fear circuits in the amygdala. Thinking that this might be the case, the researchers developed a study inspired by the kinds of exposure therapy used to help people with phobias. That works by exposing someone phobic of spiders to spiders in safe, controlled environments, until such time as their brain stops creating that fear response when a spider is around.

In this case, each of the 46 children who participated were paired with a tutor to work one-on-one. Those tutors gave the children addition and subtraction problems in 22 sessions over 8 weeks. After the program was over, they performed more fMRI tests.

While they found that all the children had gotten better at math after the tutoring, the children who had shows high fear responses showed considerably after the program. The children who had shown low math anxiety showed no changes afterward.

This is quite interesting on its own, but the researchers have more studies in mind. For one, they would like to see if the same results are possible with computer tutoring, or if social interaction between student and tutor is required.