Encourage – Don’t Discourage! Why do students feel bad when math doesn’t make sense?

Call me an optimist, but yes, when it comes to math, I am an optimist. Over so many years of teaching math, I have heard and seen it all (okay, maybe almost heard and seen it all). One experience that stands out to me is when a student does not understand a math concept, and yet they feel embarassed to ask questions. Why is that? Before you continue reading this post, take a moment and read what Albert Einstein once said.

Trust me on this, everyone has some form of difficulty in math. Some concepts might come easy to some, and other concepts might be difficult for some.

Here is my take on why I believe students get embarassed when they cannot understand a math concept. Math has been idolized as the ‘thing‘ that will make or break your educational career. Don’t get me wrong, math is important in all aspects of our lives, and we need to let kids recognize the importance of it, but do we need to let them fear math? No.

Right from when kids start counting objects, through solving their first algebra question, the ‘smart’ kid is described as the kid that can count or solve math problems. Is that the only reason to describe a kid as a ‘smart’ kid? How about the kids who can write a great story? Or the student whose illustration stands out in a crowd? They should all fall into that category.

I believe it is time we change our mindset on how we present math to kids. In Jo Boaler’s Book: Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching, she does an amazing job of teaching parents and teachers how to show all children how to be successful in math. If you haven’t already, you have to grab a copy of her book. I promise you, it will change your mindset about how you approach the rhetoric about math.


Make a decision today to be the change to the rhetoric on how we respond to kids when they first encounter difficulty with math. What we say around them, and to them makes all the difference in the world. A student does not have to make math their favorite subject, but they should not feel embarassed when something does not make sense. This starts with me and you, as parents, teachers, administrators, and advocates – Let’s teach our kids not be embarassed to ask questions. There is wisdom in asking questions. Eugene Ionesco once said, It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” 

The next time you encounter a student (or your kid) who is feeling embarassed about asking math questions, take the time to encourage them to ask questions with confidence. It makes a difference in their educational journey!

My advise – Don’t leave any student behind because you believe their math capabilities are not up to par. 

Jo Boaler said it best:

Banish math anxiety and give students of all ages a clear roadmap to success

Note: Another amazing book I will recommend about mindsets, is by Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She wrote the forward on Jo Boaler’s book on mindsets.






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