Certainly, we are all different and will have some different tendencies and, of course, some have real learning disabilities. But let’s be honest about this. “I’m not a math [art, sports, music, vocal, etc.] person” is typically a bit of a cop-out, and I believe it damages our students when we say it. It can be deterministic for your student’s future learning paths if they begin to believe these phrases about themselves. There are better ways to view the challenges involved in learning.

So let’s talk about the impact this phrase can have on our children and how we can overcome this mindset.

## Not a Math Person?

In his book Peak, Anders Ericsson, speaking about math, states, “There is perhaps no area in which more people will tell you, ‘I am no good in . . .’ A large percentage of students, particularly in the United States, leave high school with the conviction that they just do not have the genetic endowment to do any math more complicated than addition, subtraction, and perhaps multiplication. But a number of successful efforts have shown that pretty much any child can learn math if it is taught the right way” (224).

Throughout his book, Ericsson, who spent decades studying how experts in various fields develop their skills, shows that natural talent plays little or no role in whether someone can develop a skill or talent in a particular area. He has concluded that the amount of time spent practicing the right way—what he calls “deliberate practice”—is the key indicator of learning and skill development.

This is why I have heard an artist express resentment when people praise them for their “natural talent”—not realizing that they are downplaying the hundreds of hours the artist put into developing those skills.

### Let’s Rephrase That

When a child begins to internalize the phrase “I’m not a math person,” it will color every interaction they have with math. When they come across a difficult problem that they cannot solve, it will reinforce the belief and lead to frustration. They’ll develop math anxiety.They’ll lose any motivation to push through the difficulty because they believe that they are incapable of learning it.

So, let’s rephrase that. A child who instead has been shown that math is just like any other skill and can be developed and practiced might instead think, “I’m not currently good at this type of math problem, but I know that I’m eventually going to figure it out.”

### Learning Begets Learning

George Leonard in his book Mastery, defines mastery as “the mysterious process during which what is at first difficult becomes progressively easier and more pleasurable through practice” (xi).

We were created with the ability to learn and improve at things that we practice. Learning and seeing improvement in any skill or area naturally brings a degree of pleasure and can motivate further learning – at least until that next challenge is reached.

Conquering enough of these challenging moments can lead to a lifelong “skill” of learning and mastering many different things.

So, how can we help our children who may have internalized that they are “not a math person”? Or, to put it bluntly, how do we get better at math?

## 1. Embrace the Awkwardness of Learning Math

** **First, admit that learning can be a challenge at times.

George Leonard writes, “The early stages of any significant new learning invoke the spirit of the fool. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll feel clumsy, that you’ll take literal or figurative pratfalls” (81). Help your student see that it’s okay for a new skill to be difficult and it may even make them look or feel clumsy or unintelligent at first. This starts with you demonstrating how you embrace the difficulties and embarrassment of failure when trying something new.

I did not grow up playing soccer, but all my kids have played for many years now. As a dad, I had to learn some soccer skills to keep up. When I would practice kicking the ball back and forth with them, I would always make some passes with my left foot.

At first this was painfully awkward for me and for them as I felt like I was going to fall down every time I tried it (and the ball never went back to where they were standing). But over the years as I continued to practice the awkward moves, I got to the point where my left foot felt very comfortable kicking a soccer ball, and I could do it with some ease.

When I have coached kids in soccer, I often encourage them to kick with their left foot while practicing. The players who improve the most over the course of a season are those who are okay with feeling awkward during practice. The ones who have trouble handling the embarrassment of those awkward left-footed kicks in practice don’t improve nearly as much.

Working on a new kind of math problem can feel just like kicking a soccer ball with your off-foot for the first time. But don’t get frustrated! Getting a wrong answer is still part of the learning process and doesn’t need to feel like a “bad” thing. It’s an opportunity to problem-solve. You will get faster and more accurate as you practice.

## 2. Practice the Right Way (with “Deliberate Practice”)

** **So how should we practice? Anders Ericsson believes that the key to mastering any skill is to deliberately practice the skill. Here are the main facets of what he calls “deliberate practice”:

### It has well-defined, specific goals.

Your math curriculum should provide this in each assignment.

### It is focused.

Give your full attention to what you are practicing.

### It involves feedback.

You need to know whether you’re doing it right, and, if not, where you’re going wrong. One important tip here: minimize the time between doing the math assignment and checking/grading the math. Your student needs that immediate feedback.

### Get outside your comfort zone.

Your math curriculum should be progressively moving the student to new challenges. Welcome these challenges as part of the growth process like you would in any other skill.

## 3. Learn to Deal with the Emotions of Math

Math assignments sprinkled with tears.

We’ve all been there. Tears are flowing, frustration is high, and not much is being accomplished at the moment. When our brain gets flooded with emotions, math becomes very difficult, and it is best to find a way to take a break, distract the brain a bit, and come back to math when calm.

When you come back to math after a break, consider starting back with an easier problem to get back into the flow before attempting the challenge again.

## 4. Learn How to Get “Unstuck”

Show your children what to do when they are stuck on a particular math problem. Ideas can include watching a video on how to solve that kind of problem, reading the relevant portions of the math book again, finding similar example problems, checking the solutions manual, or calling a friend who is farther ahead in her math learning.

This is a valuable opportunity to teach your student how to learn more independently in any subject area and will help them fight against the tendency to just give up when it gets difficult.

## 5. Celebrate Your Progress

Finally, celebrate the victories along the way.

When my kids feel like they won’t ever “get” a certain type of math problem, I remind them (gently) that they have a years-long history now of proving that they are capable of learning any type of math question that comes their way. Show them an example of a question in their younger sibling’s math book that used to be difficult for them, but that they now can work with ease.

This will help them build confidence that they are indeed a “math” person.

## The Key to Becoming a “Math Person”: Reject That Kind of Thinking!

We shouldn’t define ourselves by what skills or knowledge we don’t have, but instead think of ourselves as being capable of learning anything.

Instead of “I’m not a math [art, sports, music, vocal, etc.] person”, let’s try this: “I haven’t yet learned (or am out of practice with) that type of math question.”

I guess it’s time for me to go practice my art skills . . .