There is a stereotype that boys are better at math than girls. Boys do hard edged stuff like football and math, and girls do softer or more “girly” stuff…right??? Sadly enough, in the “modern” nation we like to think the US is, boys clearly outperform (based on credible scientific data from large scale studies) girls in math. In other nations this is simply not true. The reason why is something you need to factor into how you help your kids in math everyday at the kitchen table.
Given analysis of data from 276,000 children from 41 countries (published in the top tier peer-reviewed journal called Science), a researcher named Paolo Sapienza found that while in the US boys outperformed girls by an average of 10 points (highly statistically significant), in numerous other countries like Sweden and Iceland, there was no statistical difference. This researcher could not explain why, but a neuroscientist who has developed a computer game to strengthen memory has some ideas.
This neuroscientist, Dr. Torkel Klingberg, believes that boys outperform girls in math in cultures where there is an expectation that boys are stronger than girls in math (and other skill areas). He supports his idea by drawing from data that shows there is a direct correlation between countries where there are stronger gender gaps and gender stereotypes (as measured by what is known as the Gender Gap Index[GGI]) and where boys outperform girls in stereotypical ways. In other words, the background cultural beliefs about what people should be good at seem to actually affect performance, in big ways. There is certainly a large body of scientific evidence about how expectations affect performance. But you may ask, “what is the mechanism in play here…what is going on?”.
And here is where things get even more interesting: Dr. Klingberg makes a further point by discussing an intriguing study finding. There was a study of how men and women are affected by math anxiety. I quote a summary already provided in Psychology Today:
“When participants were told that they were about to perform a working memory task (which included math operations as a kind of distractor) to get norms for student, men and women performed equally. But when the same test was given with the information that this was a test of complex mathematics in order to compare males and females, performance in female participants dropped almost 30 percent.
The experiment was repeated, now with both working memory and math tests. Again, the females who were informed that they were going to take a math test performed worse, on both math and working memory tests. The researchers could also show that the stress was most closely associated to impairments in working memory, and it was the impaired working memory which caused the lower math performance.”
Dr. Klingberg ended by stating that the link between working memory and math is well established, as his previous research has shown. And stress is one of the most powerful factors that cause the working memory capacity to go up and down from one moment to the next. And in this study females seemed to perform much more poorly when they knew they would be compared to boys. It would seem that the females went into this testing condition feeling stressed out.
How does this affect the homework you do at the kitchen table every night with your child?
-Whether they are a boy or girl, remember that one of the leading predictors of whether they will be successful is what is their idea of how good they are in math? If they think they are not very good, you may first need to help them improve their sense of their mathematical capabilities.
-Make sure you do not express the idea that boys are better than girls at math. There is serious evidence suggesting math abilities are as strong in both sexes.
-If you child has a resistance to doing math (or any subject) what you always need to do is try to decompose their resistance into its most basic elements, by asking yourself these questions:
—-how much of the resistance is due to true fatigue
—-how much of the resistance is due to low self-esteem or anxiety genuine in this area (“I am stupid in Math”)
—-how much of the resistance is due to a more general problem with focusing. Some kids have genuine and neurologically-based trouble focusing but when they resist doing work they are labeled as lazy. Now, ADHD is I agree way overdiagnosed, and I am all about not coddling kids and allowing them to use labels as crutches. But we must use a firm-but-kind approach where we have stringent but reasonable expectations that truly account for skill set deficiencies.
—-how much of the resistance is due to a poor fit between parental style of tutoring and child’s temperament or style of learning. For example, anxious kids do poorly with intense Type A parents and need a calmer approach. Sometimes, I recommend a tutor work with the kid, at least initially, to help the parents learn from an objective third party what the best approach is to helping their child learn most efficiently
The best approach to take with tutoring your child is to always ask yourself one question: “What skill sets are they missing?” If you always stay focused on this question, even when you are pulling your hair out at 7:30 p.m. because your 4th grader has their head on the table, you will keep your sanity. More importantly, you will continually focus on filling skill gaps rather than on giving stern lectures. Be skills based, not lecture based.
Final Note for highly motivated parents who want their kids to be among the best of the best: You may want to check out the working memory computer game called Cogmed (cogmed.com) Dr. Klingberg and his research team has created a computer game that improves working memory in children and adults long-term. This program has proven to be a powerful non-medication based approach to treatment of ADHD-like problems with focusing and distractibility. I have used this with over 70 families and the results have been impressive, as Cogmed teaches skills and their are no side effects!!!!!