Monday, March 21, 2016

Change Your Words, Change your Mindset!

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Here’s a very typical conversation that occurs in households when parents are fighting the [math] homework battle. 

Kid:  “This math homework is too hard. I can’t do it!”

Common Mom Responses:
  • “Don’t worry about it. You’ll never use that in real life anyway.”
  • “Math isn’t my subject. Go get your Dad to help you.” 
  • “I wasn’t any good at math either. Don’t feel bad.”
  • “Here, use this trick. You don’t need to do the new way your teacher taught you.”

Did you know that when we respond to our children this way, we are actually decreasing their chances of high achievement in mathematics?  We have every good intention, but while trying to make our kids feel better, we are actually triggering the opposite.  A recent study found the more math-anxious parents try to help their children, the worse their children do in math.  And the children’s weaker math achievements increased their own math anxiety. 

Did you notice that the responses I listed above were mom’s responses? While men can have the same affect on their children, women tend to be the ones to pass this anxiety along, specifically to female children. Math-anxious elementary school teachers, of which 90% are female, are also making a generous contribution to the anxious mindsets that we are instilling in our children (Beilock, 2010). *Click here to read the full article about the topic I just discussed - “The Square Root of Kid’s Math Anxiety: Their Parents’ Help.”

So how do we shift this anxiety about math into excitement for ourselves and for our kids? It starts by believing that we can achieve in mathematics through a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset.  This means that our brain can stretch and grow, often as a result from making mistakes and learning from them.  It also helps if we actually believe that math is relevant to our lives. To learn more about growth mindset, click here.  To explore ways that we can connect mathematics to our lives, click here.

One simple, but powerful way that we can encourage a growth mindset in our children (and in us!) is to change our words.  Here is what I mean:

Instead of….
Try thinking…
I’m not good at this.
What am I missing?
I give up.
I’ll use a different strategy.
It’s good enough.
Is this really my best work?
I can’t make this any better.
I can always improve.
This is too hard.
This may take some time and effort.
I made a mistake.
Mistakes help me to learn.
I just can’t do this.
I am going to train my brain.
Plan A didn’t work.
There’s always Plan B
My friend can do it, but I can’t.
I will learn from my friend.

I would like to point out that "I'm not good at this" is NOT countered with "I am so smart." When we praise our kids and tell them that they are "so smart," we are actually promoting a fixed mindset. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it (read more about this here).

In my school district, we have bulletin boards in schools that encourage this mindset. Here is an example that comes from a fellow math educator and blogger, Sarah Carter: 

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What I love most about growth mindset is that it isn’t just about mathematics. It can transform all areas of our lives.  If we believe that we can, and we work hard, we can achieve.

So what is YOUR mindset?  How do you inhibit OR empower yourself and/or your children to stretch and grow their brain? 


  1. It'll be interesting to see what happens as Claire gets older. Currently, we are trying to give her choices and options. So instead of us playing with 5 different toys 'because she wants to' we'll show her a puzzle or her lego toys and say "which one do you want to play with" It seems like big talk for a 2 year old, but it's crazy how they do understand. One night we had 2 toys out and she wanted something else. Total meltdown until she finally calmed down, we showed her the 2 toys we originally played with, and she picked 1 of the 2. I'm also trying hard to not say "no" as much. Instead, I'll say, "one cookie or none" Or "either the fish puzzle or legos." Some days are better than others, but she gets it.

    I guess what I talked about is more about not having her grow up to be spoiled. hahaha. But that's where my mind is at currently. It's definitely a challenge each day for sure. :)

    1. What you explained definitely aligns though with what I was talking about. You use what we might call "positive intent" when speaking to her. :-) You are teaching her to make choices too!