How to build maths confidence in daughters continues to be an important question for many parents. Despite all the good work that has been done to improve confidence in girls, many continue to adopt a negative mindset about their ability in the subject. And all too soon I too, was to experience it with my daughter.
Six months after starting school, my daughter came home and told me she wasn’t a ‘maths person’. She was six years old. I hadn’t been a ‘maths person’ myself, but had taken every care not to show or tell her this.
And yet, here she was – joining the statistic of girls who believe they’re not good at maths. I needed to build her maths confidence and change her mindset by giving maths the positive PR she needed (and it deserves).
We know there is a definite gender gap when it comes to success in maths and an even bigger gap when it comes to careers in the maths (STEM) field. Many of us will have grown up thinking or believing that that’s just how it is: girls are somehow just not naturally good at the subject. And this belief is often reinforced by results and not having somebody in our lives to build our maths confidence.
Research tells us that boys generally outperform girls at high school and significantly more boys then girls, opt to study maths and science at university. For example, the OECD noted that in 2015, new entrants into bachelor degrees in science and engineering were 69% male and 31% female.
But are boys naturally better than girls? Are they born with a natural aptitude towards maths? (Is anybody for that matter?). The answer is simply, ‘no’. A number of studies have been carried out and the results show that the reason boys tend to perform better is not due to a natural aptitude:
Gender disparities in performance do not stem from
innate differences in aptitude (to maths). (OECD, 2015)
…(studies do) not support the position of a male ‘intrinsic aptitude’
for mathematics….there are no gender differences in children’s
cognitive abilities and therefore no difference, on average,
in the potential for females and males to achieve
in mathematics (Spelke, 2005).
The fact that nobody is born with a natural aptitude for maths; that there isn’t a maths gene that some people are fortunate enough to have, is valuable information we can share with our daughters (and of course, our sons). When my daughter came home declaring she wasn’t a maths person, she was already, (albeit subconsciously), thinking that to be good at maths was something you either had or didn’t have. Something she didn’t have control over. And when girls start to have this mindset at such a young age, we are in a perfect position to change it; a perfect position to build maths confidence and change perceptions – which is great news!
Why is there a Gender Gap in Maths?
So if it’s not connected to a natural aptitude for maths, why is there a gender gap at all when it comes to maths? Research suggests several reasons contribute to the gap. They all however, link back to one thing, and that’s maths confidence. Maths confidence in boys, whether it comes from the boys themselves, their teachers or their parents and a lack of confidence in girls, whether it comes from themselves, their teachers, parents and/or society itself.
Here are some of the reasons for the gap, highlighted by research.
1. Lack of confidence
The most recent OECD’s report on their study (International Study of Gender Equality in Schools), noted that even among high achieving girls, there were low levels of confidence in their ability to solve maths and science problems. They also noted that girls were more likely than boys to say they weren’t good at maths.
In another study by Professor Watt’s, the research noted that boys are more likely to be confident in their mathematical abilities than girls. Watts found that a factor contributing to this confidence, was that the boys were more likely to think that their parents and teachers believed that they were good at maths, irrespective of whether it was true or not.
2. Maths Anxiety
Numerous studies have found that girls more than boys can suffer form maths anxiety. This type of anxiety is defined as individuals experiencing negative feelings when they are either preparing to do maths or engaging in maths activities.
An article by the BBC (April 2016), cited a study (Glasgow university), that girls are ‘more afraid’ of maths in 80% of countries. And this anxiety was more pronounced in more developed countries.
In the early years of school, studies have shown that achievement in maths will determine how much interest and confidence a child will have and is a good predictor of how good she’ll be at maths later on.
Some teachers however, (consciously or subconsciously), can undermine girls’ confidence, which can have a negative impact on their future success. A study from the National Centre for Education Statistics Early Childhood Longitudinal Program, noted teachers showing bias. They perceived girls who had nearly identical ability in maths to the boys, to be significantly less able. They also found that the most able students at the start of kindergarten made up 33% of the 99th percentile and by the end of second grade, only 15%.
One of the researchers, Cimpian (2011), noted that:
Half of the growth of the gender gap is due
to teachers having lower expectations of girls. When
teachers assume their female students can’t do maths
problems, it drives girls’ confidence down.
I expect many of us can remember having a maths teacher who didn’t have high expectations of our abilities. I remember mine well! He was a lovely man and a good teacher in many regards; but he had low expectations of the girls and as a result didn’t push them like he did the boys. The impact for myself was certainly a belief that I just wasn’t very good, and maybe more disturbing, a belief that maths just wasn’t important.
Below is an excerpt from an interview with Dr. L. Vittert , (lecturer at the School of Maths and Statistics), with the BBC, (April 2016). In it she highlights how a teacher’s complete lack of confidence in her abilities led to maths anxiety, and how she pushed past that:
“When I was about 14, I had a maths teacher who called my parents into school to say that I couldn’t do maths and I should stop and there was no point in further continuing with it”.
“It really stops you with jobs if you stop with maths young. So I pushed through and I had an undergrad in pure mathematics from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and now I have my Phd. So I think it’s very important, but I think there’s a lot of pressure on young girls to not do some subjects.”
Asked if maths had caused her anxiety at school, she said: “Absolutely. I think when you have teachers or other authority figures telling you that you can’t do something, of course it creates huge anxiety.
“And clearly there are pressures on a young girl not to do these things.”
Parents can also have a negative or positive effect on whether their daughters succeed in maths and their perception of the subject . In the OECD study discussed earlier, researchers suggest that parents (as well as teachers), contributed to the lower results for girls, due to their low expectations. Parents however, are perfectly placed to build maths confidence.
Similarly, studies (by Gunnderson et al 2012), argue that perceptions that parents have about how good their child is at maths is influenced by gender stereotypes which impact their child’s motivation and achievement.
Tomasetto, 2011, found that girls aged 5-7 were more likely to do poorly in maths if their mothers endorsed negative gender stereotypes about maths. (That’s one to note!).
How to build maths confidence in your daughter
As parents, we are in that privileged position of making a positive impact on our child’s learning. And maths and our daughters is no different. Through various means, we can build their maths confidence. So how can we ensure that they don’t succumb to the belief that they’re just not good at maths, or as my daughter put it, just not a maths person?
Below are some tips on how you can encourage a love of maths, build maths confidence and help your daughter perceive it as a subject to be valued, relevant to the real world and enjoyed:
1. Speak Positively about Maths
Even if you had a bad experience at school yourself, or dislike maths, take care to always give maths a good PR to your child by having a positive attitude. As her role model, if you are negative, it will give her the message that it’s ok not to be good and she can ‘give up’ on it.
2. Talk about Maths Everyday
Maths really is everywhere, including many of the games your child plays. Let her know this by pointing out/working out things as you go about your day. There are plenty of opportunities at home with cooking, measuring, weighing, but also outside such as, prices in the supermarket, finding a house number, counting cars, looking at change from a bill in a cafe. etc. All of these activities will show your child how maths is applied to real life and take away the fear that can sometimes be associated with maths.
3. Have High Expectations
Having high expectations is crucial for their self confidence. Let them know that YOU have confidence in their ability.
4. Be Your Child’s Advocate
If your child is struggling to understand maths at school, inform the teacher and ask for ways you can help them at home. Take care not to teach your child maths concepts the way you were taught in case it’s different to the school’s method. Doing this could cause confusion and make your child feel worse.
5. Play Games
Playing games that involve cards or a dice for example, will provide plenty of opportunities to not only practice maths but also show them that maths matters. There are also plenty of good maths apps that your child can play. One such site worth looking at is, educationcity.com
6. Ask Your Child How They Worked it Out
Encourage your child to explain their workings out to you. This will not only build their confidence but will also develop a deeper understanding and show them that the way they thought about solving the problem is just as important as the answer. It will help make more sense to them.
7. Group Objects
Ask your child to group objects such as toys, blocks, foods, setting the table or placing the cutlery back in the right place. This will give them practice on looking for characteristics that are similar or different.
8. Look at Patterns
When your child gets older, they will be doing a lot of maths which involves looking at patterns. You can develop this ability early on by talking to your child about simple patterns at home and outside. For example, you can look at a sequence of numbers, the beads on a piece of jewellery or the way bricks have been placed on a path. The more they get used to looking for patterns in things, the easier they will find the more difficult maths concepts later.
9. Help Your Child Understand
With maths it’s important that children understand a concept before moving on. Without this, they will find it difficult to comprehend later concepts and risk becoming overwhelmed. This will inevitably affect their maths confidence. Ask your child what they’re doing at school and help them. Make it fun and engaging by applying it to real life situations.
10. Praise, Encourage and Support
Being your child’s cheerleader in maths will have a tremendous impact on their maths confidence and perception of their abilities. Encouraging and supporting your child are not only essential to build maths confidence, but will alos give her the confidence to take it to a higher level later on, if that’s what she decides.
Some Final Thoughts….
I have to confess I’ve never been as excited as I am now about maths! And the reason is my daughter. Knowing the absolute importance of maths and how it will help her in so many aspects of life, propels me to be its huge advocate. I don’t want her to be limited in any way by having false beliefs about her ability.
In school I excelled in English and started my career as an English teacher. Maths was something I had to work at and I always possessed a negative attitude towards it. So when I began being it’s greatest advocate, it felt strange at first. But very quickly, I genuinely began to really enjoy it with my daughter. My passion is genuine. And this has resulted in a complete change in my daughter – in terms of how she sees maths, its importance in the world and how she sees her abilities. When she comes across a maths problem she finds difficult, her default isn’t to think that she’s just not good at maths, she thinks, ‘this is difficult, but with help I can solve it’
She’s (still) 6 🙂
So if you’ve always thought the same, or had a difficult time with maths, know that you can change that for your child. If I can do it, so can you!
If you would like learn more about what’s being done around the world with regard to girls, maths and STEM in general, you can check out my article in Consilium’s International Teacher magazine HERE
Over to You…
I’d LOVE to hear your experiences/stories with maths, whether it’s your own or your child’s. So please leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.