Add confidence and subtract fear: Back-to-school tips for a positive year with maths

Maths. It's one element of school that many students dread returning to the most. It's the one subject that is guaranteed to get harder and harder every year. Or is it?

Dr Catherine Attard from the University of Western Sydney says parents can play a key role in their children's enjoy maths and, by following a few simple steps, can help to send them back to school with a more positive outlook on the subject.

"Mathematics is an important part of life, and contributes to our ability to understand how the world works," says Dr Attard, a lecturer from the UWS School of Education.

"In the early years of schooling, most students are highly motivated and eager to learn mathematics. Unfortunately, by the middle years of schooling, they begin to develop negative perceptions of the subject and many disengage from it."

Dr Attard recently completed a PhD study in which she observed the progress of 20 western Sydney students, who were identified as being positive about maths, as they made the transitions from Years 6 to 8.

Over this three-year period, the students took part in a series of individual interviews and focus groups. The results indicated that the students' levels of engagement with maths dropped considerably around the time that they entered high school.

"During primary school, students are encouraged by the belief that they are competent and if they work hard they will succeed. But something happens during their high school years and some students soon begin to feel that maths is too hard and has no relevance to their lives outside school," says Dr Attard.

"Somewhere along the line, students develop the troubling misconception that high school mathematics is a special domain in which only the 'smart students' succeed and others merely get by or fail."

Dr Attard says this perception can develop inside the classroom, through their schools' approach to teaching mathematics or their relationships with their teachers or peers. But influences at home can also play a significant role.

"It was interesting to observe in this study, the ways that some students began to speak about their fathers or uncles having a 'maths brain' while some claimed their mothers are better at English," she says.

"Many parents had negative experiences with maths in high school and, as a result, believe that maths sits outside of their skill set. They may even avoid helping with their children's homework, because of a perception that the maths will be too difficult."

According to Dr Attard, these types of conversations and behaviours at home can set students onto the path of disliking and disengaging from maths.

"What some parents are unintentionally conveying to their children is that high school maths is difficult, unenjoyable, and should be avoided," says Dr Attard.

"Students can return to school with a belief that their abilities and potential for success is somehow predetermined and out of their control – if their parents couldn't handle maths at school, what chance do they have?"

Dr Attard says disengaging with maths in high school can make students reluctant to study it at the upper high school and tertiary level – which can significantly limit their career options.

"The secondary school environment and curriculum that students encounter today is very different to how parents remember it," says Dr Attard.

"Rather than preparing students for classroom scenarios that no longer exist, parents should make an effort to encourage their child's abilities and position mathematics as a subject that they are perfectly able to enjoy and succeed in."

In this back-to-school period, Dr Attard provides some tips for parents, to start this school year on a more positive note with maths:

  • Explain that, like in many areas of life, success in mathematics requires an investment of time and hard work and that that the results will make the effort worthwhile.
  • Try to always promote a positive attitude towards maths rather than focusing on bad experiences at school.
  • Incorporate maths into fun activities like card games, board games such as Monopoly, and technology based activities.
  • Talk about the ways that you use maths every day and where possible and appropriate, include your children in some mathematically based decision making: in the home budget, household bills, family business, at the supermarket, choosing your telephone plan, building your house, or working out how much money you have saved in the end-of-year sales.
  • Make an effort to develop a relationship with your child's teacher. This will assist if you need help understanding your child's homework or the strategies being implemented in your child's classroom.
  • If your child is in primary school, suggest that the school holds a parent mathematics workshop which will help you support your child and provide a better understanding of the teaching and learning practices in today's classrooms.  


24 January 2012

Contact: Danielle Roddick, Senior Media Officer