A couple of weeks ago someone asked me to explain the most challenging aspect of teaching math to students of any age. She said she is not a math person and as a result always struggled with it. Perhaps she wanted to know what I find most difficult about teaching students that might have been like her. For years, I have been asked variations of this question. “How do you do it?” “What do you do with students that are just not meant to do math?” “Why do you do it?” “Is there a secret for teaching math?” The list goes on and on. If you are a math teacher, surely you have heard dozens of versions of the same inquiry.

I believe every person is meant to be a math person. In fact, I believe this so wholeheartedly that I look forward to working with the students that people believe are the most difficult to teach math to. I look forward to the cases where the uphill climb is the steepest.

It was in circumstances like this where I began to discover something very interesting. I discovered that all people are wired to reason and use logic every single day of their lives. People are constantly running complex algorithms in their mind to make decisions and conclusions in situations with friends, dealings with family, scenarios in sports, and many more challenging and high pressure contexts. Essentially, people are practicing and getting tested in the fundamental skills of math every single day.

Lack of reasoning and logic ability are not the problem. The problem is how do we leverage math, which is a simplified version of the complex algorithms we face on a daily basis, in order to continue to build our ability to evaluate, analyze, and make complex decisions? And related to that, how do we take our existing reasoning and logic ability and apply it to learning math successfully?

But what if the problem isn’t the “how?” What if the problem lies in a barrier preventing us from doing what we so naturally do already? What if the problem has nothing to do with the teaching and learning of math? What if the problem is unrelated to math?

For the last 10 years, I have been working with math students of varied ages (8 years old through 45 years old). I have worked with students in a variety of contexts (i.e. private, classroom, workshops, small group) with a multitude of goals (i.e. scholarships, graduation, grades, passing, jobs, etc.) at stake. Some of these situations were the equivalent of getting the basketball in your hands with 3 seconds left to shoot in the 4th quarter when you are down by 1 point – for both the student and me.

A few years into teaching math, I began work on my masters in psychology which was focused on executive coaching and leadership development. I purposely sought this degree because I felt it would be the most helpful on my journey to helping people succeed whether in math, business, or life. When I needed to practice the methods of executive coaching, I turned to my students. They were my young “executive” clients facing challenges in math. It was the practice of executive coaching that lead me to discover what could be the silver bullet to learning math. From my experience, I have concluded that the single most important factor to learning math was something that holds us back in so many other realms of life – confidence.

When I have the opportunity to work privately with students, I always spend the first several sessions attacking confidence. In those sessions, I have to draw out the most powerful negative thoughts and beliefs and take them head on. This requires challenging each and every one of them, breaking them up into smaller nuggets that I can disprove, and then accusing my client of lying to me when we started. What is the lie you ask? The lie is that they can’t do math. Or that they suck at math. This is lie they tell me and themselves when we start. I have to show them that they can do math and then begin building their confidence from there. It is only after I win the case against their perceived ineptitude that we can even begin to practice math. Any efforts to help my students learn math before that is a waste of everyone’s time.

I’m not one to believe in silver bullets. And this probably does not fit the definition of one since it is anything but simple. However, I do believe confidence is the single-most important barrier to learning math (and just about anything for that matter). If we spend time attacking negative self-talk, win the case against perceived ineptitude, and help students build positive interrogative self-talk, we will be able to achieve the significant impacts we are looking for in math education in this country. As for our students-to-be, – our babies, our toddlers – we can thoughtfully design math curriculum and pedagogy to integrate confidence-building language, strategies, and exercises. I don’t mean coddling our little ones. What I mean is teaching students in a manner that builds confidence along the way. Developing a growth mindset, teaching students interrogative self-talk, encouraging and rewarding improvement, embracing and learning from failure, etc.

Here’s one way you can start building confidence in your classroom or teaching context right away.

Every time a student says “I can’t do this”, respond with “That’s not true, stop saying that. You don’t yet have enough practice to do this successfully. So let’s get back to practicing.” You can also add, “The only thing that separates us is practice.”

When students say “I’m not as good as she is in math,” I respond with, “So what? The only difference between the two of you is that she has practiced math more than you. I’m sure there is something you have practiced more than she has. Let’s not worry about her and instead get more practice. You can get there too. It’s not a race.”

Try these responses the next time you hear some negative self-talk from your math students.