“I Believe I Can”

by Early Math Counts

How do children’s beliefs about their own learning connect to last week’s discussion of metacognition and success?  As adults, most of us have experienced the phenomenon of mind over matter – the simple exercise of believing in our own ability to be successful, or productive, or committed, and then simply making it happen.  This is self-efficacy and is broadly defined as a personal belief system about succeeding at difficult tasks.

Many young children believe they “can” because they haven’t even considered that they “can’t.”  Doubting oneself is a learned behavior that takes place over time and through negative experiences.  Consider the last time you thought that you couldn’t do something.  Was it because you had tried it before and were unsuccessful?  Was it because at some point in your life, you were told, in one way or another, that you were not good enough, smart enough, adept enough, coordinated enough, brave enough, strong enough, kind enough, or tenacious enough?

Very young children have no reason to believe one way or another that they are good at math or bad at math. In fact, most research shows that it isn’t until grade school that math achievement is connected to self-efficacy.  Once children believe that they are not good at math, their performance in math decreases.  With this decrease, comes a distaste for math as well as a real possibility to develop math anxiety.  This becomes a never-ending cycle of math despair.

Eventually, ability will play a role in math success but not until children are much older.  It is far more important for young children to develop strong metacognitive skills so they are aware of what they need to be successful and to figure out how to go about getting it, as well as strong self-efficacy skills and believing in their own abilities.

Teachers of young children must develop strategies for building self-confidence in children and supporting their efforts in everything they do. This does not mean that children should be praised and congratulated falsely.  It does mean that effort should be recognized as should strategizing, planning, trying, and trying again.  Working hard for achievement is a really valuable life skill – it may be more important that being smart.  Most children, if given the time and reassurance that they are capable, will find success.  They will believe they can and then they will.

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