Bad At Maths? What To Tell Your Child Instead

That Familiar Maths Conversation

If I had a pound coin every time I heard a parent say to me or their child, “Don’t worry, I was bad at maths at school”, I’d be living mortgage free in the Bahamas (well, not quite, but you get the picture).

If that’s you, STOP RIGHT NOW!

I know why you do it: faced with maths homework using methods that you didn’t learn at school, you want to reassure little Olivia that everything will be alright. After all, look where you got in life by being bad at maths… And anyway, surely that’s better for Olivia to know that it’s okay to be bad at maths?

Parent Power

However, you should realise the power you have to influence your child’s thoughts and feelings. By telling your child that you couldn’t understand maths at school, it legitimises it for them. It tells them that they don’t need to try. It tells them that society thinks it’s acceptable to not understand maths. It tells them that the people they love the most (you) are content with them not grasping mathematical concepts.

Think about it. Would you so freely tell your child that they shouldn’t worry about not being able to read because you couldn’t at school? No, of course you wouldn’t. So why would you do this for maths?

I firmly believe that 95% of people can learn anything. If you think you are bad at something, it’s only because you haven’t been taught it in the right way. Tell your child this now and then follow the advice below to help built their confidence instead.

  • Strong Foundations As with so much learning, the ability to understand maths lies with each concept being built upon in a series of small steps. If you have missed out on even one of these steps, it can make your understanding of the next one incomplete. Your foundations are built on sand and are likely to come tumbling down in the near future. When that happens, the only way forward is to go back. Discover what is missing and plug the gap with knowledge.

Ask your child: “Show me your method, step by step, and we can see where you’re missing some knowledge.”

Visualise It

A lot of children learn maths visually. This could be through spotting patterns or using images. There are lots of good items of equipment that children can use to support their learning, but these can involve a financial outlay. Instead, why not make use of things around the house – learning fractions through bars of chocolate, finding parallel and perpendicular lines, using money to understand decimals.

Say to your child: “Let’s see what we can find around the house to support your understanding of this.”

Quick Wins

Maths is a subject where success thrives on confidence. The more a child feels that they can’t do something, the more likely it is that they won’t even try. If Olivia has got into a rut where she has brain freeze whenever maths is mentioned, find something that she can do easily. Start with number bonds to ten, get her practicing those until she says it’s too easy then gradually increase the difficulty level (number bonds to one hundred, one thousand etc.). She is more likely to be receptive to try more tricky maths, if she feels confident with the more straight forward.

Say to your child: “Wow! That’s amazing. I can’t believe you were able to do X so confidently.”

Change your child’s mindset

As above, if Olivia has convinced herself that she is bad at maths, she is unlikely to try. Introduce your child to having a growth mindset and the concept of resilience. Failure is great! You learn from your mistakes.

Say to your child: “You might not understand this now, but you will. These mistakes are making your brain grow!”

Take off the heat

Until I started teaching, I was like you – I was convinced that I was bad at maths, despite negotiating some pretty complicated statistics in my PhD thesis. Since then I’ve come to realise that actually I’m not bad at maths, my brain just goes a little slower with calculations and so others often get to the answer before me. I find if I take the pressure off myself and focus on what I’m doing, rather than others, my brain unlocks and I fly.

Say to your child: “Don’t worry about how long it takes you, let’s just see your thinking.”

Change your mindset

You’ve already agreed that you’re not going to tell you child that you were bad at maths, but that may mean you have to do a bit of soul searching yourself. What was it that made you think you were bad at maths? Did you fail an exam? Did you have a genius best friend? Did you miss some of those key steps in your learning?

Whatever it was, you’re not as bad as you think. You have to negotiate maths in your life everyday – budgeting, shopping, cooking, to name but a few. You do this with some degree of success, so your maths isn’t bad. Think back to what gave you the ‘bad at maths’ mindset. Scrap it. Park it at the back of your mind and think of all your maths successes through the years.

Say to your child: “I remember not doing very well at X test. I wish I believed in myself like I do with you, that would really have helped me to gain confidence in maths.”

Take action now! Pledge that you will never again tell your child that you were bad at maths at school.

Be sure to share your successes in our Facebook Community. We’d love to hear from you.


Dr Liz Fancourt English Tutor Eleven Plus