As our clinic as a group gets ready to attend this Friday’s conference on the Neuropsychology of Math sponsored by AET, I can’t help but run through some of my thoughts on math that come up in session, at recent conference presentations, and in clinic team meetings. It always stands out to me as an academic domain because at our clinic, we generally see that when instruction can be personalized, skills increase, often documented with rising standard scores, grades, or ACT points. The one area, however, that has been historically resistant to as dramatic gains is Math.

There’s some exciting renewed emphasis localizing the brain’s “numerosity” capabilities in the right fronto-parietal cortex, which contributes to math achievement, and the role of working memory and monitoring skills continue to be important “mental muscles” to help clients build.

Why would gains in mathematics be less dramatic than those in literacy skills or executive functioning? One “pet theory” that has always intrigued me is the attribution “I’m just not a math person.” We don’t hear that recruited as an explanation in other areas, as in “I’m just not a language person.” Math achievement has been correlated with gender: is it something innate and biological? Is it bias in the math instruction in elementary and middle school? If you recently miscomputed a calculation, why do you think that was?

In a recent team meeting, we reviewed an article that utilized Path Analysis, a statistical tool to isolate the biggest contributing factors, to examine math problem solving ability. The article by Pajares and Miller identified the importance of a surprising factor in explaining students’ math achievement: their self-efficacy, or judgments of their capabilities to attain or perform within a domain (like math). It turns out that those who do poorly on math problem solving questions have a lower judgement of their self-efficacy. Self-efficacy beliefs usually predict future behavior even better than does past experience. Even beyond that,“Inaccurate perceptions of mathematics capability, and not poor preparation or lack of skill, are responsible for avoidance of math-related courses and careers.”

One of the benefits of the relationships that are established in educational therapy is that we get to amplify the teachable moments when they occur and help situate success and setbacks within a framework that might lead to great subsequent effort. “Do you think getting that good homework grade had to do with your new strategy of checking your answers using the opposite operation?” Or, “I wonder if you followed that study schedule we developed together then you might have felt better about the test.”

One simple strategy that parents can try at home is to find some piece of school work that your child has felt proud of because of the effort they put into it. Print it out. (Sometimes work stored on google drive becomes undifferentiated and two dimensional.) Place it in a good work area at home and let the previous success begin setting up some gentle cognitive dissonance (“Hey, if I was able to do well on that, maybe this homework won’t be so bad…”) coming from the work itself. It doesn’t have potential for disappointment (e.g., “I know you can do it”) and it sounds purer than coming from mom or dad, who’s job it is to love and encourage, regardless.

Parents also need to moderate our efficacy judgments of our children. We do not have a pure read on the internal world of what “trying hard” looks and feels like. It can be tempting when seeing strong effort on one task to expect it on another, but if we are honest with our own effort in our adult worlds, they are rarely consistent.

The most powerful role we can take is to join in our children’s (and clients) internal explanations to help them make connections that lead to subsequent effort.