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Math and Self-Esteem


“I am just stupid in math,” a student from New Haven recently said while explaining her algebra woes.

In comparison, we almost never hear a student say “I am stupid in English.” Poor math performance affects self-confidence.

Many students seem to link their math performance with IQ more than other subjects. The objective nature of math is the likely reason. Other students demonstrate with certainty that they have better math skill in a way that reading, for example, is not overtly illustrated. In class, when students raise their hand to answer: “47”, there is something different conceptually than when other students discuss literature.

We recently were working with a student from Guilford High School. We’ll call her Andrea. She had convinced herself that she was “stupid in math” and was now in the process of convincing herself that she was “stupid in everything”. Math was really the only subject where she was floundering but it provided evidence, in her mind, that, in her words, “I’m just not smart.”

That’s tough for us to hear as teachers but this is heart-breaking for parents. Andrea’s mom had called us, in part, because she felt that she was failing as a parent. “More than anything, I want my kids to feel good about themselves. I always tell she is smart. But, it doesn’t seem to work anymore.”

Our philosophy centers around mastery and, in relation to self-esteem, we have preached that mastery is what creates self-esteem.

We, too, could tell Andrea that she’s smart and try to convince her through other motivational strategies that her abilities in other areas illustrate her brainpower. But, in the face of getting Ds in math, and suffering on a daily basis in math class with evidence – in her view – of her lack of intelligence, our words would only serve as a temporary band-aid.

We had to prove to her to Andrea that she could do better. In doing so, we would demonstrate that she was not stupid. We started with the basics. It became clear that she had never mastered the basics of algebra. She had likely crammed enough to pass the class. But, she struggled to recall the most basic structure of how to solve simple equations. For example, we would show her 2x = 10 and she would say the correct answer: “5” but when we showed her 2x = 73, she did not understand that she needed to, in math terms, “multiply each side by the reciprocal” or “divide by the coefficient” and in layman’s terms for this problem, divide by 2. She had been doing problems in her head and estimating answers but had not mastered the mechanics of equations.

Of course, Andrea felt stupid when she had to do more complex algebraic operations such as foiling.

We dove in to both master the basics and build her confidence. Andrea gradually mastered our systems for mastering math. She could see that if she followed procedure – she was good at straight line direction following – she could move forward in problems.

Soon enough, two things happened. She began to do better in math. Her D became a B-. More importantly, the facts proved to her that she was not stupid.

Andrea’s mom actually cried when she heard her daughter say “I am not dumb. I just need to learn more stuff.” So true, for all of us. 

The Learning Consultants
(860) 510-0410
dcapuano@learningconsultantsgroup.com