She said, "I'm not good at math, Mommy."

I could tell by the slump of my seven year old daughter's shoulders that she was about to open up to me. She peeked at me out of the corner of her eye, her head drooping. Finally, she told me. She's worried that she is too slow and therefore bad at her math facts. Then she said "I'm not good at math, Mommy." My heart sank.

This is especially hard for my girl for a couple of reasons. First, she knows I am working on helping other families with this topic. So, no matter what I say, she wants to be fast and great at this. Right away.  Also, she is a bright kiddo, and an eager learner. But, they have started doing timed drill in her classroom at school, and she isn't the fastest kid. And, boy does she want to be the fastest kid. She is a bit of a perfectionist, this girl of mine.

There is a lot of focus in second and third grade on math facts, and it is one of the areas where kids first feel "graded" in math. It is so easy to measure, and compare. So, teachers measure, and kids compare, and then the worry sets in. A lot of kids start to associate their math ability overall with their ability to do math facts quickly. This is misguided, and harmful to self-confidence.

So, what is a parent to do?

I said, "Here's what I see in you..."

1) You are already a great math learner, and here's how I can tell.

I've taught many children and grown-ups, and most of them end up learning their addition and subtraction facts just fine. Some learn in second grade, some a little later.

The ones who are best at math do these things, just like you:

If something is hard, they keep trying, knowing they eventually will figure it out. 

If they make a mistake, they try to figure it out and learn from it. 

They keep going until it really makes sense to them, in their own brain.

2) You are getting there, and really understanding.

You are learning so much about how numbers connect. I heard you explain that you know 9-6= 3 because you remembered 10-6 = 4. Listen to that reasoning! Keep going with that, and the speed will come.

3) Fluency is important, but it doesn't matter how fast you are.

These timed drills are teaching you that the goal is to be as fast as possible, but it really isn't. We really want you to get smooth and comfortable with these facts so they don't slow you down on other ideas later. 1 second per fact or 3 seconds per fact- doesn't matter a bit. So, let's just relax. Worrying about being fast will actually make it harder to think, which is the true goal!

4) I know you want to be fastest, but being slower isn't a bad sign.

A lot of kids who end up being really successful with math are not fast at math facts.  I know it is hard to believe, but you can be successful at math, but start out slow at facts. 


She smiled and skipped away. It was one of those rare occasions where she has a problem, and it actually overlaps with something I know. I knew what to say, and it seemed to help. Let her come home with a problem with friends, and I will be the one reading a blog post...

This math learner identity is delicate to protect for many kids, but we can do it. 

What do you do to help your child's self-confidence in math?