Negative Talk and Absolutism: What Teachers Want You to Avoid, Part 2

Edited quote image: original quote reads "Children don't hate math. They hate feeling [blank] by math, where there is a dropdown menu of negative feelings such as confused, frustrated, embarrassed, intimidated, and bored in place of the blank. The amendment reads "Parents learned to hate math because they hated feeling [blank] by math" with the same dropdown menu in the blank.
The original source of the unmodified quote is hard to trace conclusively, but frequently winds back to the company Mathnasium, a tutoring franchise found in the US and Internationally.

I recently asked teachers what parents do that undermines their efforts to teach children math. Two main themes emerged:

This post, Part 2, addresses the language some parents use around their children at home that influences a child’s willingness to engage with mathematics concepts. Part 1 addresses parents’ well-meaning shortcuts, tricks, and algorithms as well as how parents can approach these tasks instead.

What shouldn’t parents do?

Parents should avoid negativity (“I’ve never been good at math”) or absolutism (“I just don’t have a math brain”) when talking about math.

Avoid Negativity

Without a genetic basis, math insecurity and math hatred are still passed down from generation to generation.

The image at the top of this post edits a common phrase about math students to read: “Parents learned to hate math because they hated feeling _______ by math.” If you have lingering math insecurities, phobia, or simply dislike, consider that the issue may not be math itself, but some way that a math class or topic or teacher made you feel at a critical point. Is this true for you? Can you remember that feeling? Hold on to it for just a moment.

A quick internet search can bring up oodles of research articles about the negative effects of negative language. Whole areas of psychology and whole therapeutic strategies are built around changing negativity into positivity to change the effects, even when we can’t change the situation.

Another internet search brings up a whole slew of articles discussing how the things we say to children become their inner voice, or the ideas they believe and tell to themselves.

What does this have to do with math? Connect these dots:

  1. Your negative emotions around a math experience(s) create negative feelings about math
  2. Your negative feelings about math create more negative experiences with math
  3. You become easily frustrated with or reluctant to help your child with math
  4. You say to your child “I’m just not a math person” or “I never was any good at math”
  5. Your child, who looks to you as a major role model, and who takes their internal cues from you, begins to use negative internal and/or external language about math
  6. This negative language creates negative mathematical experiences for your child
  7. Your child hates feeling those negative emotions and connects them to math
  8. Your child begins to “hate math”

Even though there is no genetic basis for it to be true (that I know of anyway), in this way, math insecurity and math hatred are passed down from generation to generation.

(The next part of the conversation relates to Growth vs Fixed Mindsets as researched by Carol Dweck. These have become a bit of buzzword in education circles lately. The way they’ve taken off and been used most recently in ed has become a bit problematic. However, here, I think it’s still valid since a) we are using the ideas to examine only our own cognitive biases and not anyone else’s, and b) we’re using the very basics of the original research and not some of the modern adaptations.)

Now… think about something you’ve learned to do well. How did you learn it? How did you think about it differently than post-negative-experience math? How is your self-talk different when you’re learning and practicing something you know you can grow skill in compared to math (or anything you believe you’re “just not good at”)?

Do you use different language for your child when they’re practicing to learn to tie their shoes (or any other skill you’re confident they can learn) compared to when they’re stuck on a math problem (or any other skill you tend to believe has some fixed or inherent ability levels)? Take your encouraging language from the first example. How could you modify that to talk to your child about math?

Good teachers will also model alternative language here. They will encourage children to try a different approach, to talk about what they do know about a situation, to read through the problem a different way, to use multiple models, to use strategies to make sense of the problem, to walk away and to take breaks when needed, to try a different problem (nothing says you have to do them in order!), etc. In fact, the 8 Mathematical Practices adopted as part of most states’ curriculum standards are mostly about developing strategies to overcome these potentially negative experiences and turn them into highly positive experiences of achievement and overcoming challenges.

Avoid Absolutism

There is seldom only one right way to approach a math problem.

I could easily back to that Fixed vs Growth Mindset research by Carol Dweck which was mentioned above. But I think that aspect of this avoidance was covered enough in the negativity section.

Instead, I want to talk about how we were mis-taught to believe math’s something it isn’t.

Have you ever heard anyone say “in math there’s always a right answer”? Maybe that person was you?

Or maybe your negative experience that left you with a bad taste for math was one where you were told you were wrong?

Math curricula today focus on “multiple methods” and multiple ways of thinking about math. There is no one right way to approach a problem. Sometimes a homework problem may specify that students use a particular method. That is simply to give them practice in that method so that it becomes one more tool in their toolbox. It is not meant to dictate forever the method they use to approach that problem. If your student is struggling with the method shown, watch for that moment when their “productive struggle” is just about to become unproductive. Don’t let those negative brain chemicals shut them down and block all progress. Instead, in that moment, either encourage them to walk away, to move onto another problem, to search out an example, or to work the problem first with a different method of their choosing before going back to the problem as written. The ultimate goal is to build understanding and to increase the tools and methods available to them when they are problem solving on their own in future.

Bonus: Avoid Focus on Speed

We would rather they get where they’re going with confidence, understanding, and mastery than with speed!

While this did not come up specifically in my informal poll of teachers (this time), it’s a common one that I felt needed to be addressed here. We know that timed tests for speed increase math anxiety (one summary article is linked here, but a search on “timed tests and math anxiety” will give you several actual research results).

Speed and fluency in calculation would have been important before electronics were as prolific as they are. However, today it’s often both faster and more accurate to grab the small computer in our pocket to do a quick calculation. What’s more important now (and arguably even then) is to deeply understand the numbers and operations, to make the right choice of what to type into that little machine, and to be able to interpret the results (both end results and the steps in the middle).

If your child is using a slower method to calculate or “remember” things like their multiplication facts, let them do it their way!

Of course, children (and frequently adults) just want to finish the thing they’re working on so they can move onto the next. That’s natural and normal. However, we can work to slow both them and ourselves down, to be in the moment with the problem at hand, and to look for those moments of joy in the understanding and accomplishment of difficult things. Even more importantly, though: if your child is using a slower method to calculate or “remember” things like their multiplication facts, let them do it their way! You can then follow up with quicker methods, but first make sure they build confidence in the methods they naturally cling to, as those are the techniques they’ll turn to when you’re not there to support them.

We would rather they get where they’re going with confidence, understanding, and mastery than with speed!

You’ve Got This!


Barbie has taught math, supported students, and volunteered in classrooms for over 20 years. Her daughter is currently learning math in a Common Core state.

Recent Posts