Do your kids believe they’re just not good at math? We’re not born good or bad with numbers. Learn how to help your child love math with these tips.
In high school, I got a C- in Chemistry and Calculus. The odd part? I was in honors classes and getting A’s on other subjects. But I had convinced myself I wasn’t a math person and accepted my fate.
My math grades didn’t improve in college. The “I’m not a math person” label was so embedded, I didn’t even try to score well during freshman orientation placement. I figured I was destined to be in beginning mathematics—no point in trying to prove otherwise.
Maybe it’s because I enjoyed art growing up or because I was into graphic design. Somehow, I convinced myself I was more of a words and art person than a math one.
Now that I know better—that we’re not “destined” to like math or not—I don’t want my kids to fall for that trap. I don’t want setbacks in any subject to label them moving forward. Struggling in math, English, PE, or any subject doesn’t mean they’re not cut out for it forever.
How to help your child love math
Perhaps you’re driven to nurture a love of math in your child as well. Maybe she struggles with math and needs to change her attitude. You may have also learned the downsides of categorizing people as “good at math” or not.
Or you simply want to encourage a healthy start to learning math, so that it won’t be a source of power struggles down the line.
Thankfully, I’ve learned that kids (and adults!) can love math. One of my kids’ former teachers gave her class a handout by Jo Boaler, a math educator at the Stanford Graduate School of Education*. We used those tips to bring life to math around our home.
Below is what I learned about encouraging kids to love math:
1. Use number sense, not memorization or tricks
Memorization and tricks like “carrying over” get the problem solved, but younger kids don’t learn number sense or the logic and lesson behind it. It’s also inflexible, as if there’s only one way to solve a problem.
Instead, use number sense. Here’s an example:
Let’s say you told me to add 17 + 25. Using math tricks would mean adding the 7 and the 5, then carrying over 1. It’s a trick and doesn’t use logic.
Instead, one way to add 17 + 25 is to round up to the nearest 10s. I would take 3 from 25 and add it to my 17. Now I’m now adding 20 + 22, which is much easier to add in my head.
Play this game with your kids using props, manipulatives, or drawings. Don’t force this strategy on them if they’re not ready, but explain your reasoning and how it’s one way to get to the answer. And explore several ways to add numbers instead of sticking to one.
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2. Play math puzzles and games
Most of us assume math is all numbers. You might think of math games as flashcards of 2+5 or pictures of 10 ducks in a row.
But math is more than numbers. Think spaces, amounts, logic. Playing games with your child encourages the skills to make sense of these math concepts. And games and toys make math that much more fun.
Below are a few math games to check out:
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3. Focus on logic, not right or wrong
Do you find that when you check your child’s work, you focus on the wrong answers more than anything? This seems to make sense, especially when you want her to improve and learn from her mistakes.
But only correcting mistakes focuses on having right answers. And sure, a great test score is fantastic, but that can only came from tons of practice and focusing on logic.
In fact, when my kids breeze through a worksheet and get all the answers right, I use that as my cue that they need something more advanced. I even apologize for wasting their time and promise to find a more challenging worksheet.
Don’t aim for perfection. Instead, shift your focus to logic instead. Be more interested in how she got her answer than showing her the correct one.
It almost doesn’t matter at this point whether the answer is right or wrong. Try instead to get her to come up with one or two strategies to get the answer. Explain your own strategy without focusing on who got it right.
Read the importance of embracing mistakes.
4. Math isn’t about speed
We’ve heard of math savants and geniuses who can calculate crazy problems in their heads. Glamorous, but uncommon. For the rest of us, especially kids, it’s not about speed.
We shouldn’t even praise speed as if it’s a skill we want them to learn. Mastering logic is more important than speeding through problems. Don’t force your child to finish a worksheet or problem within a set time—this only makes him more anxious.
If you do have to work against time, have him solve as many problems as he can within that time frame. If he needs to finish it all that day (like homework), then carve out more time in your day so he can.
Just as a writer can take a long time to craft words, so too should he play with math and logic.
Read more about how to motivate children to do their best.
5. Don’t admit you did poorly in math
My kids won’t hear how I had scored a C- in high school math. They won’t even know (at least from me) that some people think they’re a “math person” or not.
Admitting you did poorly in math already defines a person—incorrectly—as someone who doesn’t get numbers. Doing so convinces your child that she might also be innately terrible with numbers.
There’s no such thing as a math person. Instead, there’s a person who put effort into math and excels. Anyone who has done poorly in math in the past can master and love it with enough effort and perseverance. Don’t let her think she’s destined for one way or another.
Get a list of the best math books for kids.
6. Encourage a growth mindset
Some kids believe they’re innately good at something. That they’re born with the skill to master golf, play the piano, or understand math.
This “fixed mindset” (coined by Carol Dweck from her book, Mindset) can hold a child back from trying hard or making mistakes. He’s afraid of falling short of his “smart” label and will protect it even if it means not challenging himself.
Instead, encourage a growth mindset. No one is born being good at math. Even those who excel in math wouldn’t achieve all they do if they didn’t try. Just as we exercise our physical muscles, so too can we strengthen our brains through effort.
How can you encourage a growth mindset?
- Don’t call your child “smart.” This makes him think that he’s born that way. Over praising can hold him back from reaching his potential. And don’t praise speed or perfection, either. Those skills don’t always nurture a love of math.
- Praise learning and effort instead. Focus on the effort it took him to get to where he is. Praise him for not giving up, for trying a new strategy, and for his interest in math. These are valuable traits worthy of praise.
- If he says it’s hard, tell him that his brain is working. Hard work is difficult and awkward, yes. But we shouldn’t avoid it. Instead, look at it as an indicator of his brain hard at work and growing.
Your child isn’t destined to hate or love math. Focus on important things like strategy and logic over speed and memorization. Play fun math games to emphasize that math is more than numbers. Don’t admit that you did poorly in math or that you don’t like math.
And talk about the growth mindset and how anyone can be good at math through effort and hard work. After all, a person who got C-s in high school can learn to love numbers later in life.
Get more tips:
- 5 Things You Shouldn’t Say When Your Child Loses
- How to Create a Math Rich Environment at Home
- What Every Kindergartener Should Know before the Year Ends
- How to Raise a Bright Child
- The Simple Truth about Your Child’s Constant Questions
*Source: Advice for Parents, from Professor Jo Boaler, You Cubed at Stanford University
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