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Build your math mind

Does your child have a growth mindset for math learning?

Think about the time your child first fell and scraped their knee.

You can clean them up and give them band-aids, but you can’t heal the wound for them, even though you know it’s there and you know it hurts.

Maybe you’ve gotten a similar feeling as your child moves through math classes. Maybe they’re stressed before tests, frazzled at homework time, and repeating to themselves (and you) that they’re “just not a math person.”

Maybe you see it, but you still don’t know how to help. You don’t have a band-aid or bactine for math, much less a way to heal the real pain.

But you can help them help themselves.

Our thoughts are powerful — so when we tell ourselves we’re “not a math person,” we immediately cut ourselves off at the knees. We build a self-fulfilling prophecy and end our math learning journey before it has a chance to really begin.

And we get it: Math can be hard. No matter the grade or level, math has an unfortunate ability to leave many students feeling vulnerable, frustrated, and hopeless.

That’s why mindset is so important, especially in a learning context. The right mindset can help us power through the challenging moments with curiosity and a preserved sense of self-worth.

This ideal mindset is called a “growth mindset” — and we’re about to break down what it is, why it works, and how you can help your child find theirs.

Growth mindset vs. fixed mindset

The concept of the two types of mindsets comes from Dr. Carol Dweck: psychology professor at Stanford University, motivation scholar, and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

She defines two distinct mindsets (essentially, two ways that people view their own intelligence and abilities), which are referred to as the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset.”

Growth is the goal here, but let’s start with the mindset we’re trying to avoid:

What is a fixed mindset?

A fixed mindset is the mentality that we are born with a certain level of ability, and that’s essentially the best we can ever do. In other words, it says our abilities are “fixed” — which is pretty antithetical to learning.

Fixed mindsets amplify those limiting beliefs we can have about ourselves, like “I’m just not a math person.” When we think of our intelligence as static, we’re constantly trying to prove that our natural capabilities are enough. This mindset actually prevents our brains from fully processing and learning from mistakes (there are studies to back this up!), so learning outcomes tend to flatline.

Based on Dr. Dweck’s guidelines, a fixed mindset in a student can look like:

  • Disengaging from challenging material

  • Lack of effort to expand knowledge

  • Reluctance to embrace constructive feedback

  • Comparing [perceived] ability to others’, often enviously

If your child is exhibiting any of that behavior, they could be stuck in a fixed mindset — and, without even knowing it, limiting their own success and growth.

So now let’s talk a little about the other side of the coin: the growth mindset.

What is a growth mindset?

A growth mindset encourages learning and development, seeing natural abilities as merely starting points. As Dr. Dweck describes in her book, “[your] traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with” in a growth mindset.

Contrary to the lack of learning in a fixed mindset, a growth mindset has been shown to encourage the brain’s processing and corrective activities — which is a science-y way to say we actually learn from mistakes and setbacks!

That’s why someone in a growth mindset tends to:

  • Embrace challenges and opportunities to stretch their ability

  • Maintain efforts to master material

  • Accept and apply constructive feedback

  • Find motivation from others’ success (rather than jealousy or self-doubt)

This way of thinking champions a “sky’s the limit” mentality, where there’s no ceiling on ability or intelligence. You can imagine that this is a much more effective mindset for propelling students forward in academics and beyond.

The importance of mindset in math learning

Math can be a pretty polarizing subject — you either love it or hate it, right?

Well, not necessarily. That kind of narrative is why many students think that if they don’t automatically love math, they’ll never love it (or even like it, for that matter). It makes it easy for students to approach the material with a fixed mindset, because it’s not a far leap from “I don’t like this” to “I’m not good at this.”

A growth mindset is an absolute game-changer in math learning. Solving equations, performing operations, and assessing methods are fertile grounds for mistakes both big and small; and math can easily tend toward the binary of “this is right” and “this is wrong,” which isn’t always encouraging.

But real math learning is interrogative, curious, and creative. It’s about process and critical thinking, not muscle-memory steps to find “the right answer.” A growth mindset is the key to developing that inquisitive and experimental approach to math — because mistakes are seen as learning opportunities, and there’s no longer an ideal of “a math person.” Everyone can learn.

How to help foster a growth mindset

Yes, a growth mindset is hugely helpful for students… but what if your child seems to be in a fixed mindset?

Luckily, like our intelligence, mindsets are malleable. A fixed mindset is not forever! As a crucial part of your student’s support system, you can help them develop a growth mindset, even if you can’t help them with the actual math.

Tactics to encourage a growth mindset in math

Here are a few ways you can help your child move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, particularly for math learning:

Reframe the dialogue

Maybe you hear your child say things like “I’m not a math person” or “This just isn’t what I’m good at” — these are prime opportunities to switch to a more growth-oriented narrative. Call it out in real time. Tell them honestly that their negative self-talk is actually making it harder for them to learn. Remind them that the way they speak to and about themselves is impactful.

Embrace mistakes

Dr. Dweck says in her book that “the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.” That means viewing mistakes as speed-bumps, not concrete roadblocks. Show your child that mistakes are an opportunity to slow down and reflect, not give up and walk away. Let them know that course correction is not a diversion onto a side road — it’s actually an important part of learning.

Project wisely

Be mindful of your own attitude towards math! If your child asks for help with trigonometry, don’t laugh it off and say you’re not smart enough to help with that. Instead, try learning it with them. Use Photomath to scan the problem and walk through the process step-by-step, and see if you can both learn how to solve it. This sets a great example of moving towards growth together!

Add “yet”

If your child says they don’t understand something, you can use one simple word to remind them that this doesn’t mean they can’t understand it. By adding “yet” to the end of a sentence like “I don’t get this” or “This makes no sense,” you’re creating a powerful psychological shift. “I don’t get this yet” means understanding is just a matter of time, and it’s not due to a lack of ability.

We know that being a student isn’t easy. They’re under a lot of pressure to do well and to find themselves in the process, which can lead to a lot of I’m-good-at-this-not-that thinking.

But for the greatest chances of academic achievement and positive learning outcomes, a shift in mindset can make all the difference. Encouraging your child to adopt a growth mindset means encouraging them to bet on themselves — to champion their abilities, their capacity to learn, and their trajectory of success. It means helping them believe in themselves as much as you do.

And isn’t that what every child needs?