Helping kids with math NOW

November 18, 2021

math symbols and problemsDid you know that we are all born mathematicians? Research shows that even infants notice the differences in various patterns and changing quantities.1 Young children already know who has more goldfish and who has less. Kids love to count and stack and compare. Somewhere along in their educational journey, many of our students begin to fear or dread math.

Did you know that we are all born mathematicians? 

The great tragedy of this situation is that by shying away from mathematics in high school and college, our students are self-limiting their post-graduation options and lifetime financial gains.2 If you are looking for ways to bring your students back to their mathematician roots, I have a few easy suggestions to help you on your way, and to make an immediate difference for all of our struggling students.

Expectations - Call them Mathematicians

If we want to help our students succeed, we know that one of the most important things we can do as teachers is to have high expectations.3  An easy way to convey the expectation that your students will succeed is to refer to them as “mathematicians”.  This benefits our students in two ways; first, mathematicians can do math!, and second, “mathematicians” is not gendered language and doesn’t exclude any student, regardless of identity. 

Growth Mindset and The Power of Yet

“I’m bad at reading.”  

“My family was never any good at writing.  It’s just not our thing.”

Can you imagine hearing these phrases, or some version of them, from folks you know?  It sounds a little ridiculous!  Yet we find it socially acceptable to say “I’m terrible at math!” or “Nobody in my family ever understood math.”  Banning all “I just can’t do math” phrases from your vocabulary and the vocabulary of those around you (including parents) is the first step in the process.  Research shows that math anxiety spreads like a virus - one for which we already have the antidote!  An easy solution to the negative math talk aside from not allowing it to happen around you is to teach students about growth mindset by adding the word yet.  “I can’t do this!...yet.”  Carol Dweck sums up The Power of Yet and growth mindset in her powerful TED talk:

Research shows that math anxiety spreads like a virus - one for which we already have the antidote!  An easy solution to the negative math talk aside from not allowing it to happen around you is to teach students about growth mindset by adding the word yet.

Evidence-Based Interventions and Error Analysis

Did you know that teachers are notoriously bad at choosing appropriate evidence-based interventions?4  The first struggle we face is identifying the exact error pattern.  To engage in an error analysis of student work, look at several samples covering the same skill to determine exactly where a student goes awry.5  For example, does your fifth- grade mathematician really not understand how to do long division, or do they make errors during the subtraction embedded within the long division?  If subtraction is the problem, practicing division won’t help!  

Another thing we know is that even when teachers can determine where a student struggles, we usually don’t choose an intervention targeted to the area of need!4  Once you pinpoint the student’s area of misunderstanding, choosing an evidence-based intervention is necessary (and required by law for special education and struggling students as a part of Response to Intervention [RTI] in Louisiana according to Bulletin 1508).6  

Consider the following resources to help locate evidence-based interventions for your mathematician:

What Works Clearinghouse

Intensive Intervention

Intervention Central


All gimmicks aside, if we can do a better job of encouraging our mathematicians to have a growth mindset and can implement evidence-based interventions with fidelity, we may have a chance to turn around the negative math trend we find ourselves in.  Let’s remind our students that they’ve always been mathematicians and our math teachers that there are free evidence-based resources to bolster learning.



1: Evans, L. A., & Gold, L. A. (2020). Pre mathematics skills in infants: Numerosity as a game. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 21(1), 83-86.

2: Ritchie, S. J., & Bates, T. C. (2013). Enduring links from childhood mathematics and reading achievement to adult socioeconomic status. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1301-1308.

3: Education Commission of the States: 

4: Riccomini, P. J. (2005). Identification and remediation of systematic error patterns in subtraction. Learning Disability Quarterly, 28, 233-242.

5: Peltier, C., & Peltier, T. (2020). Mining instruction from student mistakes: Conducting an error analysis for mathematical problem solving. Beyond Behavior, 29(3), 141-151.

6: Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Bulletin 1508: 


Written by: Kate Pettrey

Kate Pettrey is a PhD candidate in Curriculum and Instruction at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.  Kate is passionate about STEM education and making STEM accessible to previously excluded persons.  Kate received her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Mechanical Engineering before working for NASA.  She began her teaching career in mathematics and is certified to teach math in grades 4-12.  After working in public schools, Kate returned to college to earn her PhD to reach more students and to narrow the research-to-practitioner knowledge gap.