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Five Tips to Stop Students’ Negative Self-Talk in Math

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"I hate math. I'll never be good at math, so what's the point of even trying?"

Negative self-talk like the above statement gets students nowhere. When students ruminate on a complex problem that seems impossible to solve, they can quickly get stuck in a downward spiral of self-deprecation that discourages them from reaching their full academic potential.

Self-beliefs are critical to helping students be successful, and a growing body of research has shown that students who hold negative beliefs about their competence underachieve in school. These self-beliefs are shaped by individual experiences and start to form early on in a student's academic career. The difference between a student believing they can understand challenging material and thinking it's not even worth trying boils down to self-talk - or the internal dialogue one experiences when the brain encounters a novel problem. 

What is Self-Talk? 

Self-talk falls into two categories: positive and negative. Positive self-talk stems from having a growth mindset, which affirms a student's capability to eventually accomplish a particular goal if allowed to learn from their mistakes. In contrast, negative self-talk can cause students to think in all or nothing terms. They often blame themselves for getting a wrong answer and avoid challenges that will help them achieve 100% mastery.  

As educators, one of the most rewarding aspects of our jobs is guiding students through these challenges and seeing their confidence surge once they succeed. When teaching complex math concepts, positive self-talk is a critical element to keeping our students motivated to persevere and find a solution.

If negative self-talk is something you've noticed in your classroom, here are five helpful tips on how you can empower your students to awaken their inner coach and achieve their learning goals. 

Embrace Productive Struggle

Stop negative self-talk in its tracks by first helping students embrace productive struggle. Productive struggle is the process of effortful learning that develops grit and creative problem solving. When students face problems they don't immediately know how to solve, we don't want them to give up. We want them to make connections to things they already know and try different avenues towards finding solutions. 

That's why instead of including written prompts, ST Math provides students with immediate, formative feedback so they can see why they got an answer wrong or right before they move on to the next level. There are no timers or audible cues signaling failure that can discourage students from trying again. 

We must teach students early on that they are free to apply their own unique thought process when faced with new problems. By providing opportunities for students to share their reasoning and validating their different ways of thinking, teachers can help students build the creativity and confidence that will allow them to attempt new challenges and problems they have never seen before.

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Solve Problems Together

Facilitating student thinking while solving math problems together is an excellent way for students to analyze their thought process and correct any mistakes that could contribute to negative self-talk. Set aside some time to ask your students to clarify their mathematical thinking and work together on identifying the steps where they need assistance. 

The ST Math curriculum is designed to support this type of in-depth mathematical discourse through group discussions referred to as Puzzle Talks. The goal is to get students to communicate and deepen their understanding of the problem in front of them. Puzzle Talks leverage the power of the visual models and manipulatives inherent in ST Math and use language to support the learning experience. 

When facilitating a Puzzle Talk, we recommend that you use the annotation tool to pause the animation and provide opportunities for students to make connections, discuss problem-solving strategies, and explain and justify their reasoning. If students see that their peers encounter similar problem-solving logic, they may feel less alone and more likely to continue to find a solution. 

Use Asset-Based Language

The way we frame and deliver feedback can make all the difference in minimizing negative self-talk. Most interventions use a deficit lens: diagnosing students' weaknesses and then targeting those with a customized curriculum. Instead of focusing on what they don't know, an asset-based approach leverages the mathematical strengths the student already has to build more strengths.

Think of some ways you can incorporate asset-based language when helping students think through a problem. While general phrases can encourage students to keep trying, it's essential to include specifics so the student can reflect on what they're learning. Telling a student, “Great job!” is fine, but saying, “I saw how you tried a different approach to solving that problem. I love how you stuck with it!” is even better. Placing greater emphasis on what a student is doing right signals that they're on track to an answer and limits opportunities for negative thinking.  

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Use Peer Models

Students are less likely to engage in negative self-talk when they see their peers achieve the same goal. According to the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, "students make judgments about their own abilities by assessing their progress in comparison with their classmates."

Using peers to model problem-solving solutions can show students that they are just as skillful as their classmates. Teachers can easily create a classroom environment that allows students to demonstrate their thinking during lessons and collaborate to learn from one another. To give students some examples of positive-self talk, we recommend using phrases like, "wow, I'm not really sure how to solve this. I haven't seen this before. I wonder what we could try?"

Celebrate the Wins

Taking the time to celebrate milestones, both big and small, can make a world of difference for a student's self-beliefs. Recognizing and rewarding your students' hard work helps them feel proud and excited about achieving their own learning goals. If you are not connected to our social media channels, we highly recommend that you follow us to see how our user community continuously celebrates individual and group milestones. Additionally, certificates of completion and other printable resources are available on our website.

Final Thoughts

As a teacher, you have the power to help students switch off negative self-talk and transform their inner critic into an inner coach. Make it known to them that you are their champion in their corner, and have high expectations for your students’ success (see The Opportunity Myth from TNTP for more on how to improve student experiences at school). Focus on the positive traits students exemplify and take time to understand their thought processes. A little extra guidance and encouragement can make a world of difference in how students view their ability to succeed in math. 

Parker Erickson

About the Author

Parker is MIND's Content and Community Specialist.

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