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No more "I am not good at math" - Here's how you can help your child

Have you heard of your child saying things like "I hate math" or "I am not good at math"?


When I was teaching, I heard these statements from children; I also heard them from parents.


As a teacher, I could spend additional time to tutor children or put them in intervention groups. However, my time was finite. Parents have a lot of influence on children, and I wonder what can be done to instill confidence in math for both parents and children.


Recently, I read a book that gave me some ideas. Read on if you are interested.


I have been reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, and one of the chapters reminded me of how my students struggled with math. In the chapter, Clear discussed the relationship between habits and identity. We all have habits, and we stick with them because it creates a comfort zone for us. To break an old habit or start a new one, we need to change our behavior, which is often easier said than done.


Clear suggested that there are three layers of behavior change - Outcomes, Processes, and Identity. People often change their habits based on a specific goal they want to achieve. Clear called those "outcome-based habits."

People who develop outcome-based habits may sound like this:


I want to play the piano (desired outcome). If I spend 30 mins a day learning (process to take), I will be able to play songs I like.


On the other hand, Clear suggested that there are "Identity-based habits." Here's how people who develop identity-based habit may sound like:


I am a pianist (identity). Pianist practices the piano every day (process to take). I will practice 30 mins a day, so I can play songs I like (desired outcome).

Notice the small difference between the two habits? For the first one, the person focused on what they want to achieve without looking into their belief system. For the second one, the person begins with their belief system and allows the new identity to drive actions.


Clear argues that it's challenging to change habits without changing your beliefs because those old beliefs take people to where they are now. By changing their beliefs and identity, people can put themselves in the right mindset to sustain their new habits by embracing small wins.


 

Now let's look at how that can translate to learning math.


Suppose a child is struggling with math and wants to get better. If they begin developing outcome-based habits, it may look like this:


I need to get better at math so that I can pass the test. I will pay attention to my teacher to do better in class and on the test.


Assuming the child could block out the distraction that existed in the classroom (which can be difficult by itself) and paid attention to the teacher, there is still a possibility where the child didn't understand the teacher's explanation in class. Also, the more obstacles there are, the harder it will be to maintain the habit. If this happens frequently, the child's frustration from not understanding the concepts can reinforce their belief of "I can't do math."

Now let's look at how a child who tries to develop identity-based habits:


I am a mathematician. Mathematicians study math problems and concepts to get better. They also seek help when they are stuck. I will study, listen to the teacher, and ask for help to do better in class and on the test.

When a child identifies themselves as a specific role, they begin to exhibit the role's behavior. The child may still get frustrated in class when they can't understand the teacher's explanation. However, being stuck is part of the process of being a mathematician. Instead of blaming themselves for not understanding the problem, they accept it as part of the process. The small wins a child gets whenever they become unstuck motivate the child to continue with their work.

The idea of establishing identity-based habits apply to many other activities. As a parent, the best thing you can do is help your child investigate their current beliefs, identify the new identity, remind them of their new mindset when they become frustrated, and celebrate the small wins along the way. Sometimes, children might have difficulty identifying their small victories. Your role is to assist your child in finding those wins to maintain their habits and achieve the desired outcome.


Habits begin to form at a young age, and they are impacted by various factors that parents can control. Great habits can set your child on a path of success in the future. If you would like to learn more about habits for your children or even just your personal development, I highly recommend you to read Atomic Habits for inspiration. If you are interested in reading more about habits in this blog, please comment below.


 

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