It’s been a long-held belief that certain kids perform well in math because of innate abilities or IQ scores. A study from Stanford University, though, reveals a positive math mindset may be a stronger predictor of excelling in the subject.
It’s All About Attitude
Various facets of the Stanford study helped researchers identify a brain pathway linking a positive attitude with math achievement.
Questionnaires and surveys were used to gauge academic knowledge and anxiety levels in 240 children ages seven to 10. Additionally, 47 of those students were given MRI scans while performing math problems. Scan results reported that when a child was working on equations, their positive attitude scores were connected to activation in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory and learning center.
In an interview with Futurity, Lang Chen, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and lead author of the study, elaborated, “Attitude is really important. Based on our data, the unique contribution of positive attitude to math achievement is as large as the contribution from IQ.”
The researchers hope their findings will open doors to children struggling with math. What they consider key — the ability of teachers to inspire and nurture positive attitudes towards arithmetic.
With this in mind, Parentology reached out to Rosemary Aoko, a third-grade math teacher at Fairlawns Primary School in Nairobi with 34 years of classroom experience under her belt.
“If a child holds the notion math is difficult, his or her brain immediately shuts down towards the subject,” Aoko explains. “However much the teacher tries to instruct, the kid will still perform dismally because of their negative mindset.”
As far as math attitude goes, Aoko believes parents are the greatest determinants. ““Parents are pivotal in shaping their kid’s attitude towards math.” But what if those parents have negative feelings towards math?
Some studies estimate up to 93% of American adults have varying degrees of math anxiety. This anxiety sets in at a very early stage in life — elementary school. Picking up on behaviors, or attitudes, modeled by their parents can lead children to develop their own anxieties about math. Who can help alleviate this fear? The very parents who spurred it in the first place.
Aoko’s directive to these parents: Make positive comments about math. “Tell your kid math is simply playing with numbers,” she says. “Refrain from saying, ‘Math is hard,’ or ‘When in school, I was never good at math.’”
She adds: “Replace sympathetic messages such as ‘Never mind, math isn’t your thing’ with more positive expressions like, ‘You can do this, math is a beautiful subject that involves effort and hard work.’”
Another approach Aoko suggests is encouraging children to develop mathematical thinking. “Look for practical ways to teach your kids math in everyday activities,” she says. “Make it fun; make it come alive.”
Quoting famous American writer Richard Bach, Rosemary shares this mantra, “Throughout my teaching career, I have noted that those who win are those who think they can.”
Positive Math Mindset: Sources
Rosemary Aoko, Fairlawns Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya
Positive Attitude Toward Math Supports Early Academic Success: Behavior Evidence and Neurocognitive Mechanisms study
Math Anxiety study