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Building Math Confidence in Young Children

August 24, 2019 | Motivation

Boy learning math

Being able to persevere through challenges and failures is important to a child’s future success. It is crucial for kids to learn how to move on from setbacks and continue trying. Math is filled with learning new concepts, trying different strategies, and taking risks. And so, as a subject rife with challenges, this is an area in which perseverance is necessary and confidence can falter easily.

What makes kids especially susceptible to low confidence in math?

Perfectionist Tendencies

Kids can sometimes tend toward the need for perfection. They set very high expectations for themselves and then are quick to criticize themselves when they don’t meet those unrealistic expectations. Even just small mistakes can make their confidence take a hit. And, if they know they cannot be perfect at something, they will avoid it or not try. They become unwilling to take on challenges and take risks for fear of failure.

Fixed Mindset

Additionally, kids might see their abilities as fixed. They believe that they are either good at something or not good at it, so they give up when something becomes difficult, thinking that they simply don’t have the innate talent needed.

What can you do to help?

Foster a Growth Mindset

It is important to foster a growth mindset, an understanding that developing abilities takes practice and work. Abilities are not simply innate, they can be changed. In my classroom, we spend a lot of time focusing on the word “yet”. Fractions might feel really difficult now and you don’t understand how to compare them… yet. You’re not super fast with your 9s multiplication facts… yet. The word “yet” lets them see not only that it is all about practice and time and not talent, but also allows them to notice and celebrate in their progress over time. The way you praise your child can also have a significant effect on how they see themselves. Start praising their effort and process rather than the product. Instead of complimenting them on a good grade or a correct answer, tell them what you noticed about how they approached the problem, how they showed their thinking, or how they used a different strategy when one did not work for them. This will emphasize that their learning is what is truly important, and not the final product or grade.

Set Realistic Expectations

Since many kids struggle with striving for perfection, it is helpful to set realistic expectations with them. Discuss with your child both what they are doing well and what is not going so well for them, having an honest conversation with them. This can be tricky at first, so it might help to have their report card available; ask them how they think they are doing in a skill, and then show them how their teacher thinks they are doing. This will help them see their strengths as well as think about how they can improve upon their weaknesses, playing into that growth mindset we want to encourage in which practice makes better.

Give Space for Productive Struggle

There is tremendous power in struggle. It is hard to watch your kid try something and fail at it or reach a point of frustration; you want to protect them. However, if you swoop in to try to save the day, you are sending them the message that you do not believe that they are capable of tackling the task at hand on their own. You need to give them the space to do it themselves, and next time they encounter an obstacle, they will have greater confidence to take it on, as well as greater pride in themselves for doing it on their own.

Support and Encourage, Don’t Lead

Even while allowing your child to struggle, you can still support and encourage them through the process! You can brainstorm and troubleshoot alongside them, help point out resources that are available to them, or break the work into smaller manageable parts. It is also incredibly helpful to model your own working through challenges in everyday life. When you encounter a problem, whether it is traffic making you late or a dinner that did not turn out as expected, talk through how to manage it and solve the problem. Discuss the possible solutions with your child and come to a consensus together. Stay away from any criticisms of yourself, and even laugh at the issue—this will help your child see that everyone runs into difficulties sometimes, and that you simply come up with a solution and move on, not taking yourself too seriously.

Show the Different Facets of Math

A study done in Chicago found that normalizing math at home in an informal and fun way had a positive impact on children’s math skills in school. Math can sometimes be seen as simply using memorized steps to get to the correct answer, but incorporating math at home can show it through a new lens—a part of everyday life, filled with creativity, beauty, and relevance. Reading books with math concepts, playing games that involve math, creating art, or cooking together can all build up your child’s skills and in turn their confidence in math as well as their enjoyment of the subject.

Encourage Healthy Habits

It can be difficult to do well in school if your child has not had a good night’s sleep, a healthy diet throughout the day, or time to relax and recharge. Promoting good habits could also mean doing math homework first instead of last so that they are not as easily frustrated and more likely to persevere through parts that are tough for them.

Book Recommendations

Following is a list of great children's books related to important topics like making mistakes, worry, and perseverance (several of which are courtesy of A Mighty Girl, www.amightygirl.org -- a fantastic website and resource!):

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Gary Rubinstein

What to Do When You Worry Too Much by Dawn Huebner

What to Do When Mistakes Make You Quake by Claire A.B. Freeland and Jacqueline B. Toner

When Worry Takes Hold by Liz Haske

Wilma Jean, the Worry Machine by Julia Cook

Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco

The Day Roy Riegels Ran the Wrong Way by Dan Gutman

Flight School by Lita Judge

Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty

Salt in His Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of a Dream by Doloris Jordan

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Ultimately, we want kids to feel good about their work, welcome challenges, see mistakes as learning opportunities, and enjoy the learning process. With your support, your child can take on math with confidence and determination!

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