Helping girls create a love story with math

Written by Kimberley Palmiotto, PsyD

“I hate math!”  was the phrase that I was trying to avoid hearing from my daughter because it was something that I used to say as myself when I was her age.  I REALLY wanted to change the narrative with my girls and create a STEM-loving, math-driven mind in all of them.  So when these words first came out of my oldest mouth my heart broke just a little.  Especially because she was only 8 years old.  Of course my first thought was, where did I go wrong?  Then, I went into psych mode and started researching.  Researching how to help her, researching programs that would engage her and help her see how great math could be, researching why girls tend to say this more than boys.  You name it I read it , bought it, or reviewed it.  And guess what I found out?  There is much more behind that statement. First let’s start with my role in the situation, as a parent that had math anxiety and math resistance as a young girl, I will be the first to admit, on reflection, that I unknowingly transferred my anxiety surrounding math and science to her.  By saying things like, “I know how you feel honey I really struggled with math too” and  “I can’t really help you with that because it was never my strong suit either”

                               I was sending the message that this was something that she probably wouldn’t be good at in the future since I still saw it as a struggle. 

So I worked through the mommy guilt on that one and transitioned to the, NOW WHAT stage.   Now What?  We have discussions about growth mindset and I remind her that I use math every day in my job so I couldn’t have been THAT bad at it.  I talked to her about my frustrations with teachers that taught the course but that I was also able to find people to help me understand in different ways.  And most importantly, we start having conversations about how brains learn differently. This leads me into the second part – girls brains learn differently than boys with math and science.  This is something that is not always talked about but SO important for parents and girls to understand.  We hear so often in the media that girls are falling behind in STEM and that boys tend to do better in math and science than girls but how often do you hear people talking about why from a neuroscience perspective?  I hadn’t really until I started digging a little deeper and ran across Dr. Gurian’s work.   Dr Gurian has studied the brains of boys and girls for 30 years and written multiple books about the differences in learning with boys and girls.  In his latest book, The Minds of Girls, he describes how girls brains respond differently to learning in the maths and sciences.  One distinct difference is how both brains develop white and gray matter as they grow.  He explains that girl brains use up to 10 times more white matter (the part that spreads connections throughout the brain) than boys.  In contrast, boy brains tend to use 7 times more grey matter (localizing the activity) so that they tend to take the math information and use it efficiently without “multitasking” in the brain.  Since boys tend to use more of this grey matter they therefore, tend to perform better early on with mastering things like coding and math related activities that require that specific focus since they have a bit of an advantage (brain-wise) at that time in development.  This leads to more engagement and stronger confidence in the tasks and skills which leads to more volunteering and participation in class and generally stronger performance many times in those subjects.   So here is how that impacts girls:  It starts way back in preschool when girls naturally gravitate toward fine motor and social emotional activities awhile boys tend to gravitate toward gross motor and risk taking play.  In addition, boys tend to have faster developing spatial awareness which leads to girls doing less play with blocks and puzzles and more play with dolls and pretend play.  When they do tend to play with blocks, Dr. Guiran notes an interesting observation that during coring co-ed play, boys will often build and girls will knock them down and laugh only to repeat the play again.  This often stops girls from building themselves therefore, limiting their practice of the skills that create and develop the spatial-mechanical centers of the brain. As girls grow into elementary school age, girls continue to rely heavily on language, social emotional and fine motor and less on gross motor and spatial and mechanical awareness.  This pattern often lends itself to girls doing better in the language arts and social arenas than with math and science.  That DOES NOT mean that girls cannot do well in these areas, it is just important for us to remember that their developing brains are working harder when we are asking them to learn and perform in these areas.   Therefore, when we are teaching girls in math and science they will be more efficient learners when we include collaboration, concrete examples and discussions surrounding the material.  Dr. Gurian recommends less “multitasking” focus (i.e., homework and worksheets) and more work focused on understanding the concept itself.  Since the girl brain tends to be an innate multi-tasking machine, it can easily default to focusing on finishing all the work while bypassing the true understanding of the concept we are trying to teach them.  So what can we do to help create this love of math in our girls?
  1. Encourage gross motor and spatial play in early childhood education.  While doing this it is also very important thought for early educators to be aware of the patterns they see, like described above, where girls may become more passive learners in these activities.  By being aware of this teachers have the opportunity to intervene and encourage girls to actively participate.  It may even be helpful to have girl centers and boy centers with these types of centers if it is found to be an ongoing issue.
  1. Share experiences that focus on growth mindset and positive failure. We, as parents, can provide support to our girls through inviting them into activities and conversations together about growth mindset and exploration of cool science and math activities that encourage risk taking and failure to create things.  
  1. Check your judgment at the door.  It is really easy sometimes, when we feel frustrated, to throw out statements that we didn’t even realize were hurtful or shameful with our kids.  I know I have done it and then immediately felt major mom guilt and launched into a full apology and explanation about my frustrations, etc.  But here is the thing – the less you judge the more =your child will take risks at failing.  By explaining the gift of failure o ver and over again you encourage them to try, try, until they succeed.  THAT IS A GIFT
  1. Keep Playing.  Provide girls opportunities to have uninterrupted spatial and gross motor play, preferably outside whenever possible to encourage the connectivity between the karts of the brain that are used in math.  
  1. Share brain education with the educators around them. Encourage teachers to explore and research brain differences in their students to help formulate more efficient classroom lesson plans that meet the needs of their students.   One way might be to gift them the book “Boys and Girls Learn Differently”. 
  1. Focus on the successes that came from failure with your stories.  Be careful of the way you speak about your own history and stories surrounding math and science.  If you had difficulty, talk about how you overcame the challenges and not just the struggles.  
  1. Don’t be afraid to get help.  We have had tutors for our girls whenever they need it and remind them that these supports are there not because they are “dumb” or can’t do it but because they may need someone to reinforce and explain it in a different way.  Finding the right person to do that makes all the difference.  Plus sometimes you just need a little more practice in something you are developing.  Just like riding a bike.  You don’t get really good until you do it a lot.
So I’m going to leave you all with this…. Creating a math love story for my girls has been a journey.  It has been not only a journey for their growth but a big one for me too.  Throughout my research on how to help my girls, I found my own way to embrace my history of “math discrimination”  and have created my own small love story along the way.  It is not always easy but it is one that I try to keep sharing with each of my daughters as they grow!