Our children and our students can be easily intimidated by math and can start developing math anxiety, even math phobia, at a young age. There’s no question that this will seriously hinder their ability to learn, let alone enjoy, math as they go through the grades. One of the things we can do, as parents and as teachers, is to build in safety nets when we work with our children and students. Here are some ideas, things I’ve found to be effective:
• If a child gives a wrong answer, I tell her that that’s OK—I like wrong answers. They’re not as good as correct answers, but here’s why wrong answers are also good: They tell me three good things about her: she’s listening, she’ s thinking and she’s trying, and what more can we ask? Any child who listens, thinks and tries is going to succeed.
• In a similar vein, when a child gives a wrong answer I tell him that it’s OK to be wrong. All of us are wrong sometimes but we learn from our mistakes. I give the example of falling off a bike when learning to ride. Every time you fall off a bike, you’ve done something “wrong,” but you learn from that, get back on and do better.
• Sometimes I’ll ask a question and the student won’t respond. Usually that means he doesn’t know but doesn’t want to say so for fear of appearing “stupid.” In this case, after a few seconds of silence, I simply say, “You know, it’s OK not to know. Nobody knows everything and we’re all learning.”
• Don’t tell your child or your students that math is “hard.” A much better word is “challenging.” In a student’s mind (and for a lot of adults), “hard” is too closely associated with boring and failure. “Challenging,” on the other hand, can be presented as a way of the child testing him or herself. “Challenging” carries it with the possibility of being interesting, rewarding, even fun.
In short, let’s do all we can to instill in our kids the idea that math is, indeed interesting, rewarding, even fun. And, above all, doable.
Mathematician in Residence