School is a huge source of stress for many students. Expecting everybody to learn everything at exactly the same time and level of proficiency, quite frankly, isn’t a realistic goal. And as such, many students who aren’t quite ready to learn the coordinate plane in the second month of 5th grade are left feeling like they are “bad at math” despite the fact that they may have very well been ready to learn it in a few months.
I have one student (a third grade boy) who is honestly brilliant. From the day I first met him in Kindergarten, he showed extremely high-level abstract reasoning, understanding of difficult math concepts, and other exceptional abilities.
I taught him the concept of multiplication, division, and solving for area when he was 5. Yet sometimes he comes home frustrated with the multiplication he’s learning in school, three years later. He might miss the second part of a word problem because he read it too quickly. Then he gets points off and a sub-par grade on his assignment. And then come the “I’m so bad at math” feelings, the frustration with school, and the dislike of a subject.
The interesting thing about kids is that they tend to believe what people tell them. Especially their parents. This goes both ways: if you tell them something negative about themselves, they will believe it.
For example, if you tell a kid that they are lazy, they’ll start believing it, and using it as an excuse and explanation for their behavior.
“I didn’t clean my room because I’m lazy.”
“I didn’t do my chores because I’m lazy.”
“I didn’t finish my homework because I’m lazy.”
They believe this about themselves, because the adults in their life (who know so much more than they do) told them it’s true. And then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Imagine if instead of telling the child that they’re lazy, the parent instead said:
“I understand that you’re tired after school, but we still need to complete these chores. Let’s have a snack to relax a bit, and then get started.”
This way, the issue becomes a solvable problem instead of a permanent personality attribute.
It’s the same when it comes to school subjects. If you agree with the child that they are bad at a subject, they will believe you, and won’t put in as much effort because, after all, it won’t help anyways. They’re just bad at math.
Instead, never tell a child that they are bad at something. And correct them if they start to criticize themselves with a
“Gosh, I’m so stupid! I’m so bad at this!”
Instead, say something like:
“You aren’t stupid. This is a tough subject, so we have to work hard at this.”
Give an accurate, but soft acknowledgement of what the issue is. Perhaps the issue is sustained focus.
“Yeah, these problems are hard because you have to work on them for a long time. But you’re doing great so far!”
For a student who misses parts of long, confusing word problems, you could say
“Yeah, I see why you’re frustrated. This isn’t worded in the best way. But we can take it apart, and see what the question is really asking here. See, you know how to do this! What’s the first step?”
And then, praise the work they put in. Acknowledge their success when they begin to understand the concepts, and begin to get the right answers.
And most importantly, combat their negative thoughts with genuine positive ones.
“Wow, I’m really impressed that you figured that out on your own!”
“Wait, did you do that entire problem set in one sitting? That’s really awesome!”
“Woah, you only missed two problems! That’s amazing!”
Focusing on successes instead of failures will help your child to build positive feelings about their academic abilities. And when kids feel positive about things, they enjoy them more.
People often believe that the child who loves doing homework and getting good grades is something of a fantasy. Yet, after slowly working with my students to improve their confidence in school, students who last year said “I hate reading, I’m so bad at it,” were begging for books to read. “Students who said “I’m just not good at fractions,” were asking for extra fractions homework, and writing their own math questions for me to solve!
And soon enough, getting good grades in school became a source of enjoyment and pride for them. And with patience and positivity, your child can feel the same.