The way you talk to your child about math matters: Parents’ responses to children’s math success, failure linked to motivation, anxiety

“You’re so smart!”

This encouraging response may actually do more harm than good to children’s math performance, according to a new study by the University of Georgia.

Co-conducted by Michael Barger, an assistant professor in the Mary Frances Early College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology, the study found that encouraging children with responses related to their personal traits or innate abilities may dampen their math motivation and achievement over time.

Parents who make comments linking their children’s performance to personal attributes like intelligence (e.g., “You’re so smart” or “Math just isn’t your thing”) are using what’s referred to as person responses. In contrast, parents who link their children’s actions, such as effort or strategy use, to their performance (e.g., “You worked hard” or “What might be useful next time you have a math test?”) are using process responses.

“Person-focused praise sounds good on its face, but ultimately, it might undermine students’ motivation if they run into challenges,” said Barger. “Because if you run into challenges after being told you’re so smart, you might think, ‘Maybe they were wrong.’ We also know that people tend to think about math as something that some people can do and others can’t, and that language is pretty common, whether it’s among parents or teachers, even with young kids.”

Praising strategy and effort

For the study, researchers asked more than 500 parents to report on how they respond to their children’s math performance and their math beliefs and goals. Students were assessed in two waves across a year to measure their math motivation and achievement.

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