Updated: Jun 29
How many times have you heard your learner say, “I’m just not good at math?” As a teacher, I heard it all too often! While it can be frustrating to watch and try to work with a leaner who has accepted the idea of just not being good at something, take heart!
Take heart because:
* Cognitive scientists have shown, that people aren't born with or without a
mind for math, that's not how our brains work.
* Your learner is infinitely capable of learning.
* Mindset has a major impact on your learner's ability to understand math.
* There are quick and simple ways that you can help your learners change their
mindsets and move closer to mathematical achievements they thought were
Here are three things you can do!
Name It When You Use it
It's quite possible that your learner is basing their mathematical identity on their ability to answer questions (and usually quickly) rather than their ability to think mathematically. Learners overestimate the importance of answers in a worksheet or workbook and underestimate the importance of mathematical thinking and application.
Thinking mathematically and being an effective mathematical problem solver means learners are logical and flexible, and efficient, fluent problem solvers. They are confident, curious, recognize patterns and connections, and see math not only as something to do, but what the world is made of.
To improve your learner's math understanding, improve their mindset by pointing out when they are using math skills outside of the classroom. Help your learner see how math is practical and useful, and how they successfully use mathematics more than they give themselves credit for. While cooking together, point out that measurement is math or ask your older learner to use their understanding of multiplying fractions to double the measurements. In these moments, you can name explicitly, “I’m glad we know how to measure, otherwise these cookies would be disgusting,” or “Man, I’m rusty at multiplying fractions. I have to work so hard every time I double a recipe.” It might take some practice to point out math skills in the real world, because we use math so frequently, but you can encourage your learner to be on the lookout. From paying bills, to budgeting, to figuring out how much mulch to buy for your flower beds, include your learner in doing your family's necessary math. The confidence they gain from seeing themselves as a successful mathematical thinker- will fuel them as they engage in doing mathematical problems.
Name that Sometimes Math IS Hard
Think about how you've felt when learning a difficult new skill and someone said, “It’s easy! All you have to do is [insert difficult step of the skill here.]” When any learner hears, “It’s easy…” it can make that learner feel as if this must only be hard for them. Which can lead to thinking like, “I must be really bad at this if it’s easy for everyone else.”
Instead, of glossing over struggles your learner is having with math, acknowledge how hard learning different math skills can be. You might say, "Wow! Multiplication can be a difficult concept. You are working really hard and trying different strategies. I know that hard work will pay off." You can also remind them of instances (that they may not even remember) when they have overcome challenges and eventually learned a new math skill.
Additionally, point out your own struggles when doing something you find difficult. For example, if you're playing a game with your learner and are keeping track of points you could say, “Adding two digit numbers in my head is hard for me right now. I need to do it on paper so I can make sure I'm calculating my points for this game correctly!” When students see and hear that a particular academic concept is not only difficult for them, it makes it less likely that they will throw their hands in the air and say, “I just can’t do this. I’m not good at math.”
When giving compliments, focus on the traits that are powering their success.
Focus on the Process, not just the Product
There comes a time, in all math learners' experiences, when they will engage in some form of formal math practice. Whether they do math worksheets, solve problems on white boards or engage in computer practice - practice is part of learning.
Even when solving a certain amount of problems correctly or performing well in a certain class is one of your learner's goals, you can help your learner by focusing on the traits they're developing rather than solely on the content. And this practice is important, even if your child easily excels in math. So instead of saying, “You are so good at math! You just get it!” you can say, “Wow. You’ve really practiced thoroughly. You listened in class, you practiced lots of different strategies, and you completed all the assigned work-- and that paid off.”
On the other hand, let's say it takes your learner 15 minutes to solve one math problem, but they kept at it, even when it was hard? Point that out! I might say, “Wow. You didn’t give up. You kept at it, even when you felt really frustrated. No wonder your grades are improving in math. How do you feel? What about doing this last problem do you think will make doing the next problem easier?"
Language creates the atmosphere for learning. And creating an atmosphere where Progress Not Perfection is the motto, and the goal is putting in hard work, especially when something is difficult, creates an environment that gives learners the confidence to push through frustration and to take academic risks. When they know that with hard work they CAN learn and improve they will be more comfortable dealing with the discomfort of not “getting it” and be more likely to do the work needed to learn the skill!
If the adults in a learner’s life change the focus from what a learner can PRODUCE in math and instead look for ways to build a mindset that will help improve learning, the final result will be that our learners will be more willing to do the work required to understand math (and any other subject they may struggle with). Look for opportunities to point out how they are already using math skills, compliment their hard work along with naming when something is truly difficult. We can help our students to raise their tolerance for frustration when trying to understand a difficult mathematical concept, and give them tools to succeed in anything they try to learn.
If you’d like help figuring out how to support your learner our Co-Teachers would love to help.