These ten strategies will help your kids develop a growth mindset for math and for life. Use them in your homeschool to help your kids learn that accomplishment comes not from inborn talent, but from perseverance, mistakes, and hard work.
(If you’re not familiar with the concept of a growth mindset, click here to read Part 1: Help Your Kids Reach Their Full Potential with a Growth Mindset.)
1. Teach your kids that their brains can change and grow.
Tell your kids that no matter what they think they’re good at today, they can improve any of their skills and abilities with hard work and practice. To jump-start the conversation, try reading the picture book Your Fantastic Elastic Brain. It teaches kids how our brains work, with an emphasis on how much our brains can change and that mistakes are part of learning.
2. Don’t label your kids.
We know our own kids so well that it can be tempting to sum them up in a few words: the math-y one, the artsy one, the athletic one, etc. Parents often are trying to celebrate their kids’ uniqueness when they label them, but these labels can be very limiting.
Labels not only prevent kids from trying new activities. They also can make kids afraid to use their labeled talents for new challenges, since they worry that failure might mean they’re not so talented after all.
3. Point out examples of persistence and celebrate stories of hard work.
Whether you’re watching a baseball game or listening to a pop singer, remind your kids that high-achievers worked hard to get to where they are. Always point out the years of struggle and practice that came before the achievement, and that even celebrities have to work hard to maintain a high level of performance.
4. Provide a mix of simple, straight-forward problems and more difficult, non-routine problems.
Kids need to develop both computational fluency and conceptual understanding to be successful at math. They need plenty of practice with basic computations (like the multiplication facts, or how to add fractions) so that they can perform calculations correctly and efficiently. But balance this rote work with more difficult problems that give kids the chance to think, grow, and persist in the face of difficulty.
5. “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
This may be the only time a Jillian Michaels quote has been used to describe math education, but it’s very applicable! In her exercise DVDs, she always reminds viewers that the only way they’ll get more fit is if they get uncomfortable. You have to get out of breath and use your muscles to get results.
Math is the same way. Kids improve the most when they’re working at the point of challenge, but this can cause discomfort both for parents and kids. That’s because challenge in math often look like a child sitting in front of a difficult problem and not knowing what to do.
It can be hard for kids to sit with a problem without the solution coming immediately to them, and it can be hard for parents to watch without intervening. But giving kids time to try hard problems on their own gives them the opportunity for the wonderful aha-moment that not only solves the problem but also builds stamina and confidence for the next problem.
6. Use a math curriculum that challenges your child.
Without challenge, kids learn to believe that solving lots of easy problems correctly is what math is all about. Once they face a real challenge, they shut down and give up, as I did in my difficult college class.
The appropriate level of challenge will depend on your child. Some children are plenty challenged by a standard curriculum, while others need the opportunity to solve non-routine problems that really make them think and work hard.
If your child isn’t challenged by your current curriculum but you don’t want to switch, look for resources to supplement your curriculum that will provide more challenge. Some good options for challenging supplements for elementary-aged kids:
7. Tell your kids that hard problems take time (and really mean it.)
When you give kids more challenge in math, take away any time pressure. It’s okay to take a whole lesson to solve just one problem sometimes, and it’s okay to put a problem away and come back to it the next day (or even the day after that.)
My son often needs more than one day on his Beast Academy problems. Sometimes, he can solve all the problems on a page except one or two, so we just put it away and come back to it the next day. It can be so tempting to just tell him the answer and move on (and I have to admit I sometimes do) but he gets a lot more benefit when I give him more time to figure it out himself.
8. Praise (and value) effort, not achievement.
You’ve probably heard this bit of advice in other places, but it’s essential for developing a growth mindset. Don’t lavish praise on your child when she flies through a page of easy math problems and gets 100% right. Instead, save your compliments for the day when she works her tail off to get 80% right on a page of difficult problems.
9. Teach your kids to learn from mistakes.
People with a growth mindset know that mistakes help them learn. When your child makes a mistake, look at the error together and see what went wrong. Frame the conversation as a chance to learn, not a reprimand. It’s easiest to learn from mistakes when your child still remembers what he or she was doing, so try to correct and review your kids’ math work immediately after they finish.
10. Model a growth mindset yourself.
The most powerful way to teach your kids to have a growth mindset is to have one yourself. For me, developing a growth mindset hasn’t happened overnight, but each time I tackle a new challenge or obstacle, I become more confident that I’ll be able to face down the next one. Learn from your mistakes, persevere in the face of difficulty, and embrace new challenges to see how powerful a growth mindset can be in your own life.