Making maths motivating

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By Christine Jenkinseducation writer

Motivating children who lack confidence in maths can be an uphill struggle – those children who we feel sure could do it, but either don’t believe it themselves, or are reluctant to try. Most primary teachers will be able to think of such a child. Ask how this affects their progress and they will almost certainly say it holds them back.

Child struggling in maths

Motivating children who lack confidence in maths can be an uphill struggle – those children who we feel sure could do it, but either don’t believe it themselves, or are reluctant to try. Most primary teachers will be able to think of such a child. Ask how this affects their progress and they will almost certainly say it holds them back.

A lack of confidence can make children unwilling to take risks, try new things or worry about getting answers wrong. They may see every error as confirmation that they ‘can’t do maths’, therefore slowing their progress, reinforcing their perceived lack of success and undermining their confidence still further – in short, a vicious circle. However, if we can find ways of building their confidence and turn the vicious circle into a more supportive ‘virtuous’ circle, this can lead to improved motivation, enjoyment and ultimately greater progress for these pupils.

Vicious cycle


Where does confidence come from?

Knowing we have previously done something successfully is likely to build our confidence, whilst previous perceived failures can shatter our confidence and hold us back. Ask children to think of something they feel confident about doing – what makes them feel confident? You may well get answers like ‘I’ve done it before’, ‘I know what to do’ and so on. Knowing we can do something will certainly give us a degree of confidence. However, progress is all about moving forward into new areas: obviously we cannot continually give children work in their comfort zone. So how can we develop confidence, whilst challenging children to move forward, take the next steps in their learning and make progress?


Explore confidence issues

Discuss with the children whether it is possible to feel confident about trying something new. Refer to other areas of learning, inside or outside of school and recall past successes. This can help put children into a more positive frame of mind.

Have you ever done something challenging, but felt confident about having a go? What helped you feel confident? Their answers may include:
  • Having done something similar before
  • Not being afraid of failure
  • Knowing where to go to for help or having someone to show me what to do
  • Having some control over the degree of challenge
  • Receiving encouragement along the way
  • Time to practise
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