For many of us growing up, we may not have felt like we were good at math when we were in school. I often hear parents say things like, “I was never good at math,” “Math was my worst subject in school,” “I can’t help Johnny; I was never good at math, either,” “I don’t understand this stuff they’re teaching; it doesn’t make any sense!” Let’s pause for a moment to unpack these types of statements. These comments demonstrate a negative attitude toward math, anxiety, and a general lack of confidence.
Now, put yourself in your child’s shoes when they hear those kinds of statements from their parents.
What we may not realize when we make these types of statements is that our attitudes will rub off on our children. They are being set up to view math as an indomitable enemy due to our own math anxieties. We are essentially saying, “I’m not good at math, so I don’t expect you to be good at it, either.” It gives them a license to give up before they even get started. Students at a young age begin labeling themselves as a “math person” or “not-a-math-person.” When this happens, it can affect their confidence and willingness to learn. In a survey of 400 teachers, 68% relayed that a lack of confidence is the most significant barrier to a student’s success. If you believe math abilities are innate, and you find math challenging, then you’re likely to assume that you’re “just not good at it.” But if you maintain a growth mindset, you realize that math is a learned skill and that proper instruction and practice will help you to improve.
It becomes a vicious cycle when math-anxious parents attempt to help their children with math homework. Each time we get that annoyed look on our faces, each time we make comments of frustration, or even attempt to tell “comforting” stories like “ I wasn’t good at math either,” we reinforce our children’s negative attitudes. Rather than leaving our children with a positive interaction related to math where they receive encouragement to improve, we’ve given them permission to dislike math. Studies show that the more math-anxious parents attempted to help with math homework, the worse the children did in math. And from there, the child’s poor math performance increased their already tenuous relationship with math.
If we want our children to succeed in math, we have to help them develop early math skills. Experts suggest that we begin at an early age to introduce math concepts to our young children. You can start with counting and progress to questions like “how many blocks are on the floor?” This helps children understand quantities. Then you can move on to things like, “We have three apples in our bowl, what happens if we eat one of them? How many will we have? This can help our children once they begin school to see math as a regular part of everyday life. If they make a mistake in math, don’t just give them the answer, but help them to problem-solve for themselves. This can help to build their confidence early on.
So how can math-anxious parents best help their children to thrive in math? Here are a few ideas to consider. First, we need to change our mindset and calm our anxieties. It is vital to create a math-positive environment for our children. We can talk about ways that math is relevant to the real world and point out the times when we use math in our daily lives, such as calculating the tip at a restaurant, or estimating how much the groceries in our cart will cost. Check up on their homework and give them praise when they do well. Tell them you have confidence in their ability and believe they will perform well on tests/quizzes. And last but not least, if you are struggling to overcome your own math anxieties and don’t wish to pass those anxieties on to your child, consider seeking out tutoring for your child rather than attempting to help them yourself.
As parents, we all want the best for our children. We are our children’s first teachers, and with that comes the responsibility of setting our kids up for success. Give your child the confidence they need to excel by creating a math-positive environment.
Dr. Edward S. Thalheimer is the President and Founder of The Tutoring Franchise Corp. If you would like further information about how to help children who need educational assistance, please go to www.tutoringcenter.com.