Parents’ Beliefs about Math Change Their Children’s Achievement

We now know that the messages we give students can change their performance dramatically, and that students need to know that the adults in their lives believe in them. Researchers are learning that students’ ideas about their ability and potential are extremely important, much more than previously understood. As well as the messages we give students about their potential, brain research is now showing that messages students pick up from their parents about math and their parents’ relationships with math can also change students’ math learning and achievement.

In an important study researchers found that when mothers told their daughters they were not good at math in school, their daughter’s achievement declined almost immediately (Eccles & Jacobs, 1986). In a new study neuroscientists Erin Maloney and colleagues found that parents’ math anxiety reduced their children’s learning of math across grades 1 and 2, but only if parents helped their children on math homework (Maloney, Ramirez, Gunderson, Levine, & Beilock, 2015) If they did not help them on homework, the parents’ math anxiety did not detract from their children’s learning.

The parents’ math knowledge did not turn out to have any impact, only their level of math anxiety.

Both studies, again, communicate the importance of the messages students receive, as it was not math knowledge that harmed the students’ performance but the parents’ anxiety. We do not know what parents with math anxiety say to their children but it is likely they communicate the negative messages we know to be harmful, such as “math is hard” or “I was never good at math in school.” It is critical that when parents interact with children about math they communicate positive messages, saying that math is exciting and it is an open subject that anyone can learn with hard work, that it is not about being “smart” or not and that math is all around us in the world. For more parental advice on ways to help students with math see the parent page.

Teachers also need to give positive messages to students at all times. Many elementary teachers feel anxious about mathematics, usually because they themselves have been given fixed and stereotyped messages about the subject and their potential. When I taught in my online teacher/parent class that mathematics is a multidimensional subject that everyone can learn, many of the elementary teachers who took it described it as life-changing and approached mathematics differently afterward. Around 85% of elementary teachers in the United States are women, and Beilock, Gunderson, Ramirez, & Levine (2009) found something very interesting and important. The researchers found that the levels of anxiety held by women elementary teachers also predicted the achievement of the girls in their classes, but not the boys (Beilock et al., 2009). Girls look up to their female teachers and identify with them at the same time as teachers are often and sadly conveying the idea that math is hard for them or they are just not a “math person.” Many teachers try to be comforting and sympathetic about math, telling girls not to worry, that they can do well in other subjects. We now know such messages are extremely damaging.

Teachers and parents need to replace sympathetic messages such as “Don’t worry, math isn’t your thing” with positive messages such as “You can do this, I believe in you, math is an open, beautiful subject that is all about effort and hard work.”

This article contains excerpts from Jo Boaler’s new book, Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching


Beilock, L. S., Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., & Levine, S. C. (2009). Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(5), 1860–1863.

Boaler, J. (2015). Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Eccles, J., & Jacobs, J. (1986). Social forces shape math attitudes and performance. Signs, 11(2), 367–380.

Maloney, E. A., Ramirez, G., Gunderson, E. A., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2015). Intergenerational effects of parents’ math anxiety on children’s math achievement and anxiety. Psychological Science, 0956797615592630.