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From Math Negative to Math Positive Attitudes in Your Kids

Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen.

“I hate math”

In an AP poll, over 1/3 of adults polled about school year math experiences indicated that they “hated” math in school. In fact, math was twice as despised as any other subject. Even if math was not your bane, it is likely you’ve heard a complaint or two about math from your children. These range from, “I hate math,” “Math is my worst subject,” “Math is too hard and I’ll never use it,” or “It’s boring.”

Brain scans and other neurocognitive research correlate increased math stress levels with decreased memory efficiency and ultimately a progressive drop in motivated effort. Math negativity is a stressor you can help your children replace with the pleasure, self-efficacy, motivation, and perseverance of math positivity.

Math negativity often starts young and unchecked, builds up. Math stress and low self-expectations can come from math stereotype beliefs, parental math negativity, frequent failure to understand math concepts, or fear of making mistakes. Many early math learning is rote memorization and children become discouraged when they mistakenly believe that speed and one right answer measure math intelligence and potential.

Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen—literally, scientifically, as a matter of fact and research. Attentive focus and sustained effort are limited brain commodities. In the stress state, feelings of anxiety, confusion, and mistake fear, leave less mental effort available for cognition and taking on challenges.

Consequences of math negativity may include low participation, low challenge tolerance, falling further behind, behavior problems, and avoiding the advanced math classes needed for success in many careers after high school and college.

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Bust their math myths and stereotypes

Math myths abound such as: one has to be very intelligent to be good at math; it is acceptable to be bad at math because most people are and it isn’t really used much outside of special occupations; and, “My parents said they were never good at math so they don’t expect me to be any different.”

You can help your children build the positive attitudes needed to sustain their effort through challenge, setbacks, and mistakes starting with busting any mistaken math stereotypes or myths about math abilities they may hold.

Myth 1: You either have or don’t have a math brain

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Many children believe that if their parents did not do well in math, their genetic makeup will limit their own potentials. A frequent comment from my students was that their parents told them, “I’ve always been bad in math” which they interpreted as meaning they inherited math hopelessness.

On the other hand, equally challenging for children is the belief that because parents told them that they found math “easy” that means that their struggles indicate their lack of a “math brain.”

Parent frustrations increase math stress. When parents say things like, “I did quite well without math and so will you” or “I don’t know why you are having problems, I had no trouble adding fractions with different denominators. It is quite easy” children start doubting themselves. When children perceive parent frustration, they may take on the incorrect belief that they are letting their parents down if they struggle and or ask for help, even when it is quite appropriate to do so. The outcome can be falling further behind, not because they are lazy or have inadequate brainpower, but because they lose confidence that their efforts will make any difference.

Reduce your children’s reaction to their perception of your especially good or bad “math brain” by focusing on their potentials. Don’t emphasize your own math experiences as being very easy or very hard.

There is no such thing as a “math brain.” Children need to know that regardless of your or their past math experiences, all brains have the potential for math success. Help them understand that effort and practice, even struggles, strengthen brainpower (see my blogs about teaching children a brain-owner’s manual and about neuroplasticity). They were born with and will always have the potential to achieve success in math and, with perseverance, they will get better and better.

Myth 2: “Boys are better at math than girls”

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Dr. Torkel Klingberg, researcher and professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet, reported that when subjects were told that the experimental math test they would be taking would be used to evaluate the influence of math stereotypes, girls and boys scored equally. When the same test was described as an evaluation of “complex math skills” girls were scored lower than their male counterparts.

This is an example of the power of girls believing in the untrue stereotype that boys have more natural brainpower in math. Your discussions with daughters about this myth will go far in increasing their math confidence and outcomes.

Myth 3: “Math isn’t important for everyone”

“Math is not that important in most careers,” “It’s okay to be bad at math because most people are,” or “Math isn’t really used much outside of special occupations” are comments that lead children to give up more quickly, especially if math is a struggle without hope they can succeed.

Find opportunities to show children how math is used in many occupations as well as how you use math throughout your day at work, home, and on the go.

Motivating memories to ignite resilience

Motivating memories can switch math negativity to the positive zone, especially when your children are frustrated or experience setbacks. Prompt memories of challenges they’ve achieved. “Remember when you kept trying even though you felt like giving up when learning to ride a bike?” “How did you learn to play soccer so well?” “Why don’t you fall as often now as you did when you were learning to snowboard?” “Do you remember when playing a song with two chords on your guitar was difficult? Now you have mastered more than twenty!”

Proactive interventions can prepare children for mistakes they will all make. When you model your learning from your own mistakes and remind them how they learned and improved from their mistakes (walking, talking, writing, learning songs, mastering a new video game or athletic skill) you build children’s confidence so they tolerate risking mistakes and can learn from their setbacks.

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Capture their imaginations and motivation will follow

Key to building children’s math positivity is capturing their imaginations and interest in math early. The brain is most receptive to learning about a topic if there is a direct link between the knowledge and something the child values. Instead of them thinking of math as an isolated subject, show them the extended values of the math in ways they find inspiring.

Guide children to see math as an accessible, valuable tool that helps them understand, describe, and have more control over the world in which they live. Offer your children experiences that inspire them to want to measure, question, and analyze things around them. From these opportunities they will want to acquire the knowledge and mathematical tools to achieve those personally valued goals.

Show children the value of the math applied to their lives, hobbies and interests. Everyday situations offer many opportunities to use math to solve problems they want to solve such as these:

Encourage children to predict how long it will be until it is time for their special television show to begin if it is now 3:00 and the show starts at 5:30.
When shopping, let your child be your guide in evaluating the best value for an item he wants. Which is a better buy, in terms of cost and quantity of various beverages, such as a six-pack of 12 oz. cans or a two-liter bottle.
If your child wants a specific item as a special occasion gift encourage her to compare the cost of the bicycle, toy, or tech device in ads that offer different percentage discounts and different base prices.

Math building games at home and around town

Even before children recognize numbers and well into their school years, you’ll build their math foundations and positive attitudes with math-related games. Since math is based on patterns, observation games give your children opportunities to boost pattern awareness.

  • Shape hunt: Ask your child to lead you around the house and point to all things that are circle shaped (or square, etc.).
  • Color detective: As you drive together in the car, have your child say “red” each time he sees a red car. Then ask him to be on the lookout for a color he chooses.
  • Button patterns: Using a bag of assorted buttons (you can purchase these at most sewing stores for a few dollars) and make small groups of buttons that share simple characteristics such as color, shape, or number of holes. Have your child select a button from the bag that he thinks fits with your cluster. If he is correct, ask him why his button matches. As your child progresses, add more complex patterns such as flat versus indented, multicolored versus single color, metal versus plastic. Always be present when toddlers have access to buttons or other small objects because they are a choking hazard.

Math on the move

When math is incorporated into physical activity it can be more enjoyable, memorable, and even more clearly understood. Use a roll of butcher-block paper to combine math with physical activities that boost understanding and memory.

Create a butcher-paper number line to roll out on the floor, or use masking tape for a more permanent line. Demonstrate walking and counting aloud as you step forward along the line from zero to five. Have your children do the same as you or post-its on the squares with the numbers they count.

With a numbered line they can do an even or odd number walk or jump as they count by twos or threes.

Older children can use the line walks to add numbers, such as starting on number 4 and taking 3 more steps to discover they are on number 7. As they build experience, encourage them to use the word “add” and progress to writing their results in number sentences. “I was on number seven, added three more and was on number ten.”

It won’t be long before they become curious or start experimenting with walking down to the bottom part of the number line below zero, where you’ve made boxes without labels. In doing so they will do more than memorize flash cards for subtraction. Their brains will construct the concept of subtraction and that will later be the basis for their comfort with negative numbers.

Estimating is relevant and builds mistake resilience

When we estimate as adults it is with the understanding that our estimates will not be precise. Guide your children to see how errors are part of the estimating process, and become clues to improve the next estimation.

More than-less than is an activity that builds number sense and a positive attitude about the value of estimating. Select two boxes or cans of food that weigh 8 ounces and 16 ounces. Have your child hold each as you tell her their weights. Then give her other items with the weight covered by tape or a post-it. Have her compare the feel of the new item to the feel of the 8- and 16-ounce samples. She can then estimate if the new item’s weight is closer to 8 or 16 ounces.

As she becomes more successful, she may want to predict a more specific weight. Encourage her to tell you why she thinks the new can weighs 10 ounces and she might say, “It is a little heavier than the 8-ounce can or it is much lighter than the 16-ounce can, but not as light as the 8-ounce can.” She will be building number sense by experiencing the relationships between numbers and real measurements and developing concepts of more than and less than.

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From captives of math negativity to captains of their math minds

With your help in building positive emotional connections with math, children will go from captives of math negativity to captains of their math minds. Their math brains will change from passive receptacles, barely holding on to isolated pockets of fading rote memories, into active transformers of meaningful math. Like the toy robots that transform into space ships and tanks, their math knowledge will become an increasingly powerful and valued tool and they will be ready to take on new challenges.

Find more activities and strategies for building “math positivity” in books by Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed: Learning to Love Math, ASCD 2010 and How Your Child Learns Best, Sourcebooks 2008.