NEWS

Lack of Math Education May Negatively Affect Teen Brain Development

teen doing math problems in a notebook

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that math education for teenagers directly impacts a region of the brain crucial for future learning and reasoning.
  • According to researchers, 16-year-olds in the UK who stopped their math education before their peers had lower levels of a crucial brain chemical responsible for memory, learning, and more.
  • This decision can lead to a gap in education as well as the potential for less progress in their future educational endeavors.

Many high school students would love the chance to quit math class a few years early, if possible. But at what cost? A new study reveals doing so, as students can choose to in the UK, can have a detrimental impact on their brain development for years to come. These findings have parents and math teachers renewing their interest in making math a subject of choice, rather than one to dread.

Researchers from the University of Oxford released a groundbreaking study in June, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that found that the brain chemical gamma-aminobutyric acid is significant to developing a brain region that impacts memory, learning, reasoning, cognitive functioning, and more.

Even more importantly, the chemical levels they found could predict math attainment 19 months later, suggesting they impact the brain’s neuroplasticity. 

Why Teen Brains Need Math

Psychologist Raquel Libbin, PhD, explains that the crucial chemical the study is analyzing will help teens in their future in ways we haven’t even fully understood yet. “The role of brain plasticity has [made] incredible gains in the area of research. It is being applied in many areas of interest such as trauma, mindfulness, anxiety, anger control, and now in education. We never imagined the brain structures could be altered in any way,” she says.

In addition, the chemical will help teens “develop better interpersonal relationships, learn to control our emotions, such as our temper...and to be able to attain higher educational goals that lead to better job opportunities and increase socioeconomic levels.” The study’s analysis corroborates this, concluding that math education is associated with “educational progress, socioeconomic status, employment, mental and physical health, and financial stability.” 

Karen Aronian, EdD, a college professor, former public school teacher, and education design consultant, says she can’t think of a single profession that doesn’t use math and reasoning in some way. “It’s excellent for your brain, has real-world applications, and [involves] problem-solving skills.” She also calls it a “super shame” when high schools start backing off the math requirements in later teenage years.

“We already know we are opening up neuro-pathways that are going to be a bridge to our future. When we remove what potentially for some can be difficult to hurdle, we are taking away their legs to hurdle—not giving them the stretch that’s needed.”

Karen Aronian, EdD

When we remove what potentially for some can be difficult to hurdle, we are taking away their legs to hurdle—not giving them the stretch that’s needed.

— Karen Aronian, EdD


It’s not just about the math. Michelle Hintz, PsyD, MT-BC, a pediatric psychologist and board-certified music therapist, says, “Math concepts are more than just about numbers. They are about relationships, have spatial and visual components.” She explains that music, in particular, is highly mathematical, as is art.

“The ability to understand a part-to-whole relationship is essential to being successful in all areas of our lives—from managing our time and creating a schedule, establishing a financial budget and planning, etc.” She worries about the “growing trend” in children being unable to perform simple math problems in their heads, pointing to interference by technology. 

Adults Can Foster a Teen's Passion for Math

Luckily parents, teachers, and mentors have the ability to integrate math into everyday life. Through some intentional use of everyday situations, you might find the teen you care about reigniting their math passion.

How to Encourage Your Teen to Love Math

Teachers, administrators, and parents have one of the most complicated puzzles to solve themselves—how to establish and maintain students’ passion for math. The experts weigh in with their best tips to guide educators and parents towards this lofty goal.

Play Board Games

Anyone who has seen the formulaic magic of chess (perhaps while binging “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix?) understands the power of board games for math development. Aronian says, “Chess is a game of patterns and it is a brain builder and it incorporates math and logic and reasoning and grit and again is an intergenerational and universal language.” But before you get overwhelmed trying to remember yourself just which way a knight can move, remember that even simpler board games from a young age build math foundations.

“Those children who play board games using dice tend to have a much better understanding of relationships between part and whole,” Hintz says. “They can conceptualize more easily the idea of fairness (e.g., how many cookies each person can have), the probability/likelihood of things occurring (e.g., chances of winning, earning the GPA they seek), and the ability to anticipate outcomes (e.g., how long will it take me to save X amount of dollars if I put half of my earnings into a savings account).”

Break out the Candy Land and start rolling.

Find the “Secret” Math in Other Subjects

So your kid hates math...but do they hate animals? Outer space? Probably not. Hintz says engaging in math-adjacent fields all have “fascinating concepts for young minds to contemplate.”

Hands-on activities such as blocks, clay, art, and puzzles, will engage multiple senses while subtly teaching math concepts. Aronian adds that she even recommends parents use the car as a math learning space, counting up house numbers by twos or threes, and similarly simple but engaging talk.

Modernize Your Math Talk

It’s time to update how you talk and think about math, so kids will too. Libbin recommends connecting examples to their lives, and what’s important to them at the stage they are in, such as “shopping, friends, self-esteem, a girl.” 

“Examples today could be friends sharing Ubers or Lyfts [while] going out to eat...As we teach the mechanics of math, we can also include logic, higher reasoning. It cannot be boring as perceived today and out of context with life skills.” She also says that parents can help their teens understand that math skills can be a sign of leadership in a peer group, and also that it will protect them in the future.

“It is imperative that parents make the connection for them of how their math skills allow them to be looked up [to] by their peers, or ensure nobody takes advantage of them by knowing their math and being able to verify what others tell them they owe, or have correct change at stores.”

Start Early

Teenagers don’t just become interested in math one day—it’s ingrained in them from their first months of life. Aronian encourages parents to help their babies and toddlers to observe numbers early. “Math starts from day one. When you have a baby, and begin singing to your baby, there are patterns...you are priming the child,” she says.

Karen Aronian, EdD

Math starts from day one.

— Karen Aronian, EdD

Parents don’t have to stress about specific educational materials, though some math apps can be fun, because as Aronian puts it, “The world is your math classroom...do a little bit every day.”

Jump on the Project Based Learning Train

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a modernized approach to teaching that allows students to engage in projects that matter to them in a real-world context. Students can see the greater purpose of their work outside the classroom, and math is often a required component in making this happen.

For example, instead of a hypothetical problem in which students use math to organize profits from a bake sale, they’d actually conduct the sale in real life for a student activity or club.

Parents can encourage their students to engage in classes that utilize this type of learning, and to talk to educators about how PBL is being integrated in the classroom.

Watch Your (Math) Language

If you, as an adult, constantly say things like “I’m just not a numbers person,” or “I’m terrible at math,” students might start to perceive it as less of an essential life skill and more of a talent that you do or don’t have. It can also increase their fear of math. Instead, use positive language, Aronian says, but also let them see you do adult math and handle a challenge.

“When you are solving a problem, let them see you work. Don’t hide your struggle. When you are doing taxes, let them see you do the computation...or paying for the check at a restaurant.” 

“A lot of people can be fearful of math, however there’s ways to approach math that if you are always beginning anew with math and how you enter into the math language then there's a possibility for children to rediscover math, get excited about math.”

What This Means for You

Teaching a love for math doesn't have to be intimidating, and can instead be integrated into everyday life, using the world as a teaching tool. Parents can encourage teens to see the lifelong and wide-reaching benefits of math education, and to help them continue taking math classes after they are no longer required in some schools, and into higher education. Their brains will thank you later.

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  1. Zacharopoulos G, Sella F, Cohen Kadosh R. The impact of a lack of mathematical education on brain development and future attainment. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2021;118(24):e2013155118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2013155118