Kids Who Think They're Bad at Math Do Better in Tests if They Say Nice Things to Themselves First

Unconfident children can boost their performance in math tests simply by saying nice things to themselves, a study suggests.

A total of 212 fourth to sixth graders, aged between 9 to 13 years-old, took part in the research. The children completed a standardized math test in two parts.

At the end of the first half, researchers asked some kids to talk to themselves about the amount of effort they would put into the second half of the test before carrying on. The children quietly told themselves: "I will do my very best." Another group was told to consider their ability, by repeating the phrase: "I am very good at this."

The children were instructed to write down their given phrase, and repeat it to themselves while working on the problems, particularly when they found the work challenging.

The rest of the children acted as the control group, and weren't assigned an affirmation. A few days before completing the test, all the kids completed a survey on how they perceived their own and others' abilities.

Compared with kids who didn't do what is known as self-talking, those with low self-confidence who spoke about the effort they'd exert did better in the second half of the test.

The data led the researchers to conclude children who struggle with negative thoughts about their competence could boost their achievements in school by telling themselves they will put effort into a task.

However, the team pointed out the findings may not relate to children of other ages, and more research is needed to explore this.

The authors, who published their paper in the journal Child Development, said past studies have shown children who think negatively about their competence often underachieve in school. And as youngsters approach late childhood, more worry about their abilities in subjects including math.

Lead author Sander Thomaes, professor of psychology at Utrecht University, commented in a statement: "Parents and teachers are often advised to encourage children to repeat positive self-statements at stressful times, such as when they're taking academic tests. But until now, we didn't have a good idea of whether this helped children's achievement.

"We discovered that children with low self-confidence can improve their performance through self-talk focused on effort, a self-regulation strategy that children can do by themselves every day," he said.

Co-author Eddie Brummelman, assistant professor of child development at the University of Amsterdam, commented in a statement: "Our study found that the math performance of children with low self-confidence benefits when they tell themselves that they will make an effort.

"We did not find the same result among children with low self-confidence who spoke to themselves about ability. Self-talk about effort is the key."

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A stock image shows a girl struggling with sums. Researchers believe how children talk to themselves could boost their perfomance in math. Getty