The Important Trait Your Child Needs To Succeed In Math And Life Today

How you can help your child in math and life

Intelligence can be built like muscle, through hard work. Brand New Images via Getty Images

 Do you remember struggling with math when you were in school?  Most parents today can look back on their k-12 days and remember feeling like their math homework was impossible, that the only kids who would get the right answers were the ones who had some super special math ability that they had been born with.  Math was hard, and the higher advanced math courses were reserved for those few rare students that had a natural math talent.

 We thought they were the only ones who even had a chance at understanding trigonometry, advanced algebra, and calculus.

Research in the most recent decades has painted an entirely different picture.  

Math problems often are challenging.  What brain and educational research has discovered is that it isn't the brain we are born with that determines whether or not we have the ability to learn how to solve these problems.  It is our perseverance in learning how to problem solve that is the main determining factor of whether we will ever be able to solve that problem.

In What Way Is Persistence Connected To Math?

You already know that math can be challenging.  Learning how to solve math problems can take a lot of work- it isn't something you always get on the first try.  Some problems or concepts can only be learned by trying again and again.  You may have grown up believing that you would never be able to complete a challenging math class if you were someone who couldn't master the material the first time you saw it.

 Instead, it is by continuing to try to solve the problems until you master the material.  

It is like learning to play a musical instrument.  At first, you have trouble playing the instrument at all, yet with practice you learn how to play basic songs and eventually more challenging ones.

This trait is commonly known as persistence or perseverance.

 By now you might be wondering if the ability to learn advanced math often hinges on perseverance if you should just make sure your child spends a lot of time working on math until the "get it."

Developing this type of perseverance is a little more complicated than that.  "Growth mindset" is the term that researcher Dr. Jo Boaler, professor of mathematics at Stanford University, coined to describe the perseverance that students need that allows them to learn advanced math.  Dr. Boaler has authored several books and research articles that show how a growth mindset leads people to be able to learn difficult material that once was believed could only be learned by natural born geniuses.

How Is Growth Mindset More Than Just Persistence?

Boaler's growth mindset is a specific way of viewing challenges that fosters and leads to persistence.  Persistence and the ability to persevere in solving difficult problems are the results of having a growth mindset.  While you may be thinking this is just a matter of semantics, it is a useful one.  

A growth mindset differs from fixed mindset in that the growth mindset centers around believing that the brain can grow and change.  Dr. Boaler's research demonstrated that the brain continues to learn and change much faster than scientists had previously thought.

 Boaler even found that almost every child is able to learn advanced math concepts if they have opportunities to learn and a growth mindset.  This includes students with severe learning disabilities, who were found to be able to learn much more than scientists had previously thought.

Having a growth mindset means that teachers and students alike believe that it is possible for almost anyone to learn even the most difficult material with good teaching and sustained effort.  Someone with a  fixed mindset believes that this change isn't really possible, that they are stuck with the level of intelligence given to them at birth.

Is a Growth Mindset Really All It Takes To Succeed?

Having the knowledge that intelligence is developed through hard work and study is a critical piece of learning, but it isn't the only thing needed.  Critics of growth mindset point out that it is not a panacea.  Children still need to have effective teachers, solid curricula, rigorous standards and more to be able to learn advanced math.  Effort and belief that intelligence comes from hard work are what lead a student to know they can do that hard work of learning when the material is presented.  

What Can I Do To Develop My Child's Growth Mindset

  1. Develop a growth mindset yourself.  Read stories of people who worked hard to overcome significant odds and also intelligence.  Some classic examples are Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs.  Each of these people had been told during their early life that they lacked intelligence, yet they all became leaders and pioneers through hard work.
  2. Totally nix out any idea that someone cannot learn something because of a natural trait.  I am sure you would never tell your daughter that "girls just aren't good at math."  But watch for subtle versions of that same fixed idea.  Your own beliefs and what you say are a strong influence on your child's attitudes and beliefs - even your teenagers are still strongly influenced by your parental ideas!
  3. Teach your child to view mistakes as learning opportunities.  Let your child know that mistakes are part of the learning process.
  4. When they do make a mistake, ask them what they would do differently next time.  
  5. Praise their efforts and actions, rather than defining or labeling your child.  Every child has good and bad moments.  Giving praise action and effort encourages them to continue trying, rather than just believing they are already smart or good.  
  6. Encourage your child to solve problems on their own. It can be tempting to step in and take over when your child is struggling.  Instead, acknowledge your child's frustration and ask them if they have any other ideas on how they can solve their problem.

While educators are focusing on developing a growth mindset in math, it is an attitude that can help in all parts of life.  People who have the most effective growth mindsets view all aspects of learning and intelligence as the product of hard work over time.  It is not just about math or science.  

 Boaler, J., & Dweck, C. (2016). Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students' Potential through Creative Math. John Wiley & Sons. 

 Blad, E. (2016, March 14). Nurturing Growth Mindsets: Six Tips From Carol Dweck. Retrieved March 18, 2016, from

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