Help your children learn to love math by reversing math negativity

Many students, like their parents before them, attend school with feelings that make them unhappy doing math. In fact, a 2005 AP/AOL News poll of 1,000 adults in the United States revealed that 37 percent recalled they hated math in school. In the poll, more than twice as many people said they hated math as said they hated any other subject.

One would think that once they were out of school, these individuals would have found the real-world value of the math they disdained in school. But in a 2007 evaluation of math literacy of a random sampling of adults in the United States, 71 percent could not calculate miles per gallon on a trip, and 58 percent were unable to calculate a 10 percent tip for a lunch bill. Yet only 15 percent of those polled said they wished that they had learned more about or studied more math in school.

Most elementary arithmetic skills are “learned” by rote memorization and assessed on tests of memory recall. Children who do not excel at memorizing isolated facts are less successful, feel inadequate and lose confidence in their ability to do math. The result is a cascade of increased math anxiety, lowered self-confidence, alienation and failure.

The first step to success in math is a positive attitude. Yet, this is actually the last thing that many teachers expect from students. It is up to parents to help change these attitudes.


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  • understand the myths and misconceptions about math
  • recognize the consequences of math negativity
  • apply math in real-life ways
  • grasp the effects of math-related stress

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  • forget to act as a math ally
  • underestimate the importance of retests in math class
  • fail to encourage memories of positive school experiences
  • shy away from sharing your negative personal experiences

Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do understand the myths and misconceptions about math

There are numerous myths and misconceptions about math. These include:

  • You have to be very intelligent to be good at math.
  • It is acceptable to be bad at math because most people are.
  • Math is not really used much outside of special occupations.

In addition, many kids believe that because their parents were never good at math, parents don't expect their kids to be any different. But why is there so much negativity about math? Some causes include low self-expectations as a result of past experiences with math, parental bias against math, inadequate skills to succeed at learning math, failure to engage math through learning strengths and fear of making mistakes.

Do recognize the consequences of math negativity

As teachers know all too well, math negativity has various consequences. These can include stress, low motivation, decreased levels of participation, boredom, low tolerance for challenge, failure to keep pace with class lessons, behavior problems and avoidance of advanced math classes necessary for subsequent professional success.

Do apply math in real-life ways

Why wouldn't students develop math negativity, frustration and stress? They are routinely asked to memorize procedures and are then told—without explanation or conceptual connections—that what was correct last year is no longer acceptable.

The curriculum rarely primes their interest with opportunities to want to know how to represent remainders in different forms. Without clearly evident personal value, the brain—operating at the level of information intake and memory formation—does not care.
Students truly grasp math when they see it applied in real-life ways that they care about. In other words, when they see math as a tool they need and want. This motivation is not promoted in word problems about the number of books or the number of students in a classroom. However, when you give small groups of students 67 toothpicks and some index cards, and then ask them to model the pizza party seating problem described earlier, they will build the experiential knowledge of a real-world situation where remainders are not helpful. When they consider dividing leftover pieces of pizza into parts, they will see that fractions or decimals are a valuable tool to make the pizza sharing process fair, whereas a remainder would imply that perfectly good pieces of pizza sit in the box because there is no way to divide them.

Do grasp the effects of math-related stress

Parents with extremely high expectations for their children are usually motivated by a desire to see their children have more than they had themselves. Unfortunately, when children internalize these expectations and don't fulfill them, they can suffer depression, anxiety, physical illnesses (high levels of cortisol associated with chronic stress lowers the immune response) or psychosomatic illnesses. Or they may even inflict physical injury on themselves and others.

Reversing negative attitudes toward math may take months if your kids have been repeatedly stressed to the point of feeling helpless and hopeless. If they are anxious during math class, information entering their brains is less likely to reach the conscious thinking and long-term memory parts of the prefrontal cortex, and learning will not take place.

Stress is the primary filter blocker that needs to be overcome. Perception of a real or imagined threat creates stress, as does the frustration of confusion or the boredom of repetition. Stress blocks the flow of information through the amygdala in the brain's limbic system (the part that controls emotion) to the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and it diverts sensory input into the automatic, reflexive parts of the lower brain. These are the unconscious, more primitive brain networks that prepare the body to react to potential danger, where the only possible responses are fight, flight or freeze.

Under stressful conditions, emotion is dominant over cognition, and the rational-thinking PFC has limited influence on behavior, focus, memory and problem solving (Kienast et al., 2008). Prior negative experiences also impede the flow–through the amygdala–of stored memories needed to understand new, related information and to use foundational knowledge to solve new problems (LeDoux, 1994). When students are stressed, they can’t use their thinking brains. Therefore, a reduction in math-related stress is key to success.

Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not forget to act as a math ally

The brain is most receptive to learning about a topic when there are clear links between that topic and something a child values. Parents can act as “math allies” by finding ways to integrate real-world math into a child's hobbies and interests. For example, parents can encourage their children to calculate how long it will be until their favorite television show begins if it is currently 3 pm and the show starts at 5:30 pm. They also can help their children compare the costs of things they like, such as bicycles, toys and computers, in newspaper ads that offer various percentage discounts off different base prices.

Do not underestimate the importance of retests in math class

Allowing kids to regain some sense of control, such as through retests, is vital. Because progress in math is so strongly based on foundational knowledge, students need to achieve mastery in each topic—which forms the basis from which students can extend their neural networks of patterns and concepts—before they move to the next level.

Retests provide opportunities to reevaluate answers and make corrections as necessary. To ensure mastery, some teachers require that students take a retest when they score under 85 percent. The primary goal is to have students learn the appropriate material, so they can move forward with an adequate background for success.

Incorporating accountability into retesting allows students to build skills related to self-reliance, goal planning and independent learning. Some may voice concerns that students might not act responsibly or seriously once they realize that they will have a second chance. But accountability increases when you require students to provide evidence of corrective action, such as participating in tutoring, doing skill reviews or finding textual examples that correctly demonstrate how the type of problem is solved. If the original test and retest scores are averaged together, students understand that they remain accountable for their first test grade.

Compared with cheating—an unfortunate response to grade pressure that further decreases confidence and self-esteem—the option of taking retests is a more positive approach to low grades. Retesting takes time on the part of teachers, but it shows students that adults respect their capacity to be responsible, successful learners.

Do not fail to encourage memories of positive school experiences

Find ways to encourage memories of positive school experiences and use those memories to activate kids’ motivation. It is likely that all students can recall at least one positive experience related to school, if not to math specifically. Trigger these positive memories by asking questions such as:

  • Can you remember a time when you were excited about something at school? You may have been nervous, but when you started kindergarten, did you feel you were now a big kid? Did you look forward to experiencing some of the good things you had heard about, like making handprints, playing on cool playground equipment, getting new school supplies, learning new things and seeing your friends every day?
  • Can you recall a time when you were proud to answer a question or when you got a good grade after studying hard?
  • Did you ever help a friend understand something in class or invite a classmate to join your group when he or she didn't have a partner?

After you discuss some of these positive experiences, talk about how and why your child’s attitudes toward math changed for the worse at some point. Possible questions to prompt this discussion include the following:

  • When did you first wake up and not want to go to school–or hope it was a weekend?
  • What did teachers do that turned you off to school? To math?
  • Did you ever lose interest because you were not learning new things or because you didn't understand things that you thought everyone else did understand?

Do not shy away from sharing your negative personal experiences

Having discussions about your own negative experiences will increase the bonds between you and your children. Think about times when you felt overly challenged, out of place or ready to give up. How did these experiences make you feel? In all likelihood, these feelings were similar to many of the emotions your kids deal with. Share these experiences–along with coping mechanisms or solutions–that helped you deal with and overcome your negativity.


When you help your kids build a positive attitude toward math, they become engaged in the material and motivated to excel in mathematics because they value it. When you offer experiences and opportunities that inspire them to measure, question and analyze things around them, they will want to acquire the knowledge and mathematical tools necessary to achieve those goals.

Once you reopen doors that were previously closed by negative feelings, math is revealed to kids as an accessible, valuable tool to help them understand, describe and have more control over the world in which they live.

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