How to Build Kids’ Math Confidence (Especially Girls’)

Have you ever wondered whether boy or girls are naturally better at math? Well, the short answer is that with very few exceptions, boys and girls generally perform the same in mathematics. Neither gender has an inherent math gene or deficiency, despite any stereotypes to the contrary.

What is significantly different, though, and quite problematic, is that girls tend to have more negative attitudes toward the subject. A recent article in Scientific American points out that “Girls tend to have less positive math attitudes: They have higher levels of math anxiety and lower levels of confidence in their math skills.” The article goes on to say, “In addition, we see larger gender differences in spatial skills, the way students approach solving math problems and math-intensive career choices.”

So, if attitude, rather than ability, is at the heart of how they approach math,  what can we do to build girls’ (and frankly kids of all genders’) confidence in their math abilities? For starters, we can make math more approachable and fun. And we can incorporate it into our daily routines and habits. I like to call this “everyday math” – just 5 minutes a day means our kids are getting an extra 25+ hours of practice per year. With more practice comes better math fluency, again building confidence. Plus, as math becomes a natural part of every day life, it stops being something to be feared or avoided.

Below are a list of ideas and resources for making math more entertaining and building your child’s “math muscle”. Like any other muscle, it develops when it’s exercised regularly.

1. Do a little bit every day (or most days) in addition to what their school assigns.

This could be as simple as drawing 3-d shapes for 5 minutes or practicing skip counting on the ride to school. Just a few minutes is all you need.

2. Talk about math in a positive light.

We wouldn’t complain to our kids about how much our last dentist appointment hurt or how we dislike spinach, so why would we talk about math in a disparaging way? Statements like “I hated/struggled with math when I was your age” aren’t helpful. At all.

3. Look for understanding of the concept, not recitation.

Most 2-year-olds can count (1,2,3,4,…) but when you ask them how many hands they have, few can tell you. Same with older kids and multiplication facts. It’s great that your child can recite her times tables by heart, but does she get the fundamental concept behind why we multiply? Can she relate it to other concepts like division or apply it to real-world problems? This level of thinking is what makes the difference in being able to handle high order math concepts.

4. Play math games.

Whether you buy a game or make up story problems yourself, look for ways to have fun with it. I’ve done a separate post (HERE) on our favorite math toys and books for preschoolers and grade/middle schoolers. We like getting one or two STEM toys, games or books for the kids’ holiday and birthday gifts, which is why we have so many to review and share (don’t want you to think my kid’s shelves are teaming with stuff!).

5. Math is all around us. Look for opportunities to point it out and play with it.

You don’t need to invest in toys and books to teach math, though. Math is everywhere, from the geometry in architecture to statistics in sports. Guesstimating games are a really easy one. For example, at the mall “how many pennies do you think are in the fountain? How could you find out?”. Have your child calculate the tip at a restaurant or the change at the grocery store. A little late now, but I have a post here that suggests math exercises you can do with Halloween candy. Maybe you can do something like it same with the upcoming Valentine’s treats?!

6. Ask your kids to give you problems to solve.

Challenge them to stump you. Maybe even consider a prize, like a fun outing together, when they do.

7. Do math worksheets or use a workbook.

Workbooks can get a bad rap as being boring or overly focused on rote memorization, but I argue they are helpful for explaining and practicing concepts. Plus, they’re relatively inexpensive and portable. Bring one with you to appointments or waiting with younger children while their siblings are in a sport/lesson. You can find lots of free worksheets on Pinterest for download. We particularly like this Singapore Math series including the word problem book.

8. Vary how and where you do math.

Sidewalk chalk, a white board with markers, oversized kraft paper taped to the dining room table. The possibilities of where you do the work are endless, but the point is to mix it up, which adds to the fun. Our kids like writing on the chalkboard, so we throw a problem or two up there every couple of days for our daughter. Sometimes she hops on them immediately, sometimes they sit for a few days. We don’t ask/force her to do them but offer lots of positive reinforcement when she does.

9. You can always consider outsourcing math support. 

Whether struggles over homework are making evenings in your house tense, or the level of you child’s work is beyond your capability, you can always consider bringing in a pro to help. Ask your child’s teacher if he/she can recommend a peer tutor in your child’s class. Centers like Mathnasium can also be really valuable (despite their sometimes mis-placed reputation for endless worksheets). Or look for a retired teacher willing to do 1:1 tutoring. Whatever you do, just find a solution that works for your family. If it’s too logistically complicated, expensive or your child resists, it likely won’t last for long.

You may notice I didn’t mention any apps in the suggestions above. While I’ve heard some great things about some educational apps (Khan Kids, for example), we don’t do much screen time in our home so they’re not high on my list. Also, I believe kids benefit from the tactile experience of writing the problem, creating depictions, showing their work and erasing it all to start over when they need.

For tons of ideas on some really helpful and fun math toys and books, look for a new post coming later this week!

Otherwise, I’m curious about any ideas you guys have on fun ways to expose kids to the exciting world of numbers. Comment below.


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