Why praise, response to challenges affect girls in math

Last year we discussed researcher Carol Dweck’s studies about how praising kids for their intelligence could make them less able or willing to take on challenges.

(See our discussion from last May and the original article about her research.)

A new article about Dweck’s research talks about how praise and that ability to take on challenges affects girls particularly in math.

From KQED (a NPR affiliate):

“Dweck’s research, which focuses on what makes people seek challenging tasks, persist through difficulty and do well over time, has shown that many girls believe their abilities are fixed, that individuals are born with gifts and can’t change. Her research finds that when girls think this way, they often give up, rather than persisting through difficulties. They don’t think they possess the ability to improve, and nowhere is the phenomenon stronger than in math.”

Of all the subjects on earth, people think math is the most fixed,” Dweck said. “It’s a gift, you either have it or you don’t. And that it’s most indicative of your intelligence.” This attitude presents an especially sticky problem to educators working to boost girls’ interest and passion for science, technology, engineering and math – STEM subjects. For many boys, believing math is a fixed ability doesn’t hamper achievement — they just assume they have it, Dweck said. But girls don’t seem to possess that same confidence, and in their efforts to achieve perfection, Dweck’s research shows they shy away from subjects where they might fail….”

“If adults emphasize that all skills are learned through a process of engagement, value challenge and praise efforts to supersede frustration rather than only showing excitement over the right answer, girls will be show resilience. It also might help to provide a roadmap to correct the gender imbalance that already exists in fields requiring math and science, jobs that often involve setbacks, “failing,” and overcoming challenges.”

Dweck says parents should praise strategy and taking on hard things and sticking to them. She said those will be the kids willing to take on challenges.

“Mother’s praise to their babies, one to three years of age, predicts that child’s mindset and desire for challenge five years later,” Dweck said

She suggests that failure in small doses is good for kids.  They suggest it’s like video-game learning – when they fail a level they start back over without being stigmatized. That’s how they should take on other challenges at school – mess up, start over, do better each time and don’t beat yourself up over it.

I love this analogy. My son takes failure at school very hard but will try over and over again at video games until he gets it right.  I am going to try to emphasize that to him.

Rose is currently two years ahead in math, and I think she knows she has to work hard at this subject. I think if she was just taking the regular class or one year ahead, it would come so easily that she wouldn’t see how hard work plays into it. But I think being two years ahead she is really having to work hard and knows it’s not all natural ability.

So what do you think: Do you see your girls especially in math and science having a hard time because they think it’s a fixed ability and are afraid/or don’t know how to take on the challenges? What do you think about the analogy of the video-game learning? I really like that analogy.

34 comments Add your comment


April 25th, 2013
4:54 am

Our youngesst that I’ve discussed here before (type one diabetic, potential learning disabilites, forgetfulness, etc) has struggled in school, particularly in math.

This part weekend she had 4 pages of math that she “forgot” was due on Monday. Now she had all week and ow its Sunday, she’s basically doing EVERYTHING in her power to get someone, anyone to help her and/or do it for her or give her the answers.

We MADE her sit in her room and figure out every problem on those pages. We gave her a website to help. It took 6 hours, but lo and behold she did it.

She was so proud of herself that she couldn’t stand it. She wnt to school Monday for the first time in a while and turned in work on time that she did herself. Yes we reinforced how proud she SHOULD be and that is proof she can do this work and all that.

Moral of the story; we had o MAKE her so uncomfortable and ruin her Sunday in order to get there but it worked.

By the way, pet pieve of mine and you know it’s coming; what is the distibution of articles written with the phrase “especially girls” vs “especially boys”? And at what point in males falling behind in going to and finishing college where we will finally say “hey, the girls are finally even, it’s time to pay some attention to why boys are falling behind”?


April 25th, 2013
6:28 am


April 25th, 2013
7:04 am


My daughter has the same habits you mentioned. Sometimes as a parent, I feel like throwing my hands in the air. I want to thank you for your post. Perhaps we don’t challenge our children enough.


April 25th, 2013
7:19 am

I am not a Math/Science person. I can handle basic Math but anything tricky is not for me. My son is very good at Math. Daughter is pretty good. I always encouraged them in any subject.

We all have strengths and weaknesses and until we push ourselves, we will never know. Speech 101 was a horror, for me. Now, I can talk to 500 people with no trouble at all. This, to me, is why we need to try new things and test them out. I remember when we moved here to ATL almost 24 years ago. I had never driven on an interstate, except to get here. Now, I drive on it nearly every day.

Yes Jeff, it is a good thing not to bail your children out and let them endure it and feel proud when they have finished. KUDOS to you!

Mother of 2

April 25th, 2013
7:28 am

I volunteered for years in math classes in elementary school. We used a math program that wasn’t graded, and absolutely no one got all of the answers correct. The kids were encouraged to use mathmatitical thinking to solve word problems. All of the students progressed at their own pace, and this was a great way to engage the students who weren’t particularly proficient in math. The kids enjoyed my weekly appearance and worked hard to impress me with their ability.

I noticed that girls were definitely less engaged in math when we started the program. But their confidence levels increased as the school year progressed.

I find it interesting that girls tend to feel less confident in the lower grades, but there seems to be an imbalance in how many girls are valedictorians at graduation. Perhaps we need to teach our kids patience with themselves. Their skills improve with maturity and after they’ve developed strong work habits.


April 25th, 2013
8:23 am

With a degree in Physics, to me, Calculus is regular math. I just don’t comprehend the ” I just don’t get math” excuse. What they really mean is I don’t take the time to understand math. I have yet to find anyone that can’t get it if they commit to learning the concepts rather than memorizing a process-that’s the differnece between math and subjects like history or writing.


April 25th, 2013
9:13 am

I was one of those kids who truly believed that I “just wasn’t good at math” and no matter how hard or long I studied, I would never get better. I believed that you were either born smart or not… and if weren’t good at a particular subject, then you never would be. But I know better now. My philosophy now is more of a life philosophy rather than just toward math or any one subject.

I now understand that “smart” is a direct result of hard work, paying attention, staying focused, and practice practice practice. This idea that school should be fun like playtime or recess is fun is a bad analogy in my opinion. I tell my kids that you can have fun at school, but learning isn’t easy and should be challenging and even hard sometimes.

Because I really want to impress upon my kids the importance of working hard, practice, and not giving up…. Everyday when I drop my 1st grader off at school, I ask her “what are you going to work hard at today?” It’s sort of our mantra…. Sometimes she answers with “School” or sometimes she gives a more specific response like if she is working on particular writing assgnment. The point is, although she is very bright, I always want it in the back of her head that she is going to face challenges, sometimes on a daily basis, and she can figure out a way to overcome them and THAT is what makes her smart.


April 25th, 2013
9:21 am

qb – my last post was eaten but I agree wholeheartedly with your comment. Math is not a foreign concept that just cannot be learned by girls and we need to stop acting like it is. I, and most of my girlfriends, are engineers or scientists. I was not a bit interested in history but I had to learn it to succeed in the course. I didn’t care one whit about economics but it was a class where I had to learn the concepts and processes. The same is true for math and other courses. You have to learn it. If we stop putting the focus on what a girl cannot do and act like she is expected to be able to do it then we may have a lot more success. “I know you’re a girl so you’re probably not going to like or do well at this but give it your best shot” (hyperbole) just doesn’t work for me.

@Jeff – yes, we do need to focus on our boys getting left behind in their subjects as well.


April 25th, 2013
9:26 am

Growing up, I always did well in math, but started struggling as I progressed into geometry, calculus, etc.It took everything I had to make a B- in these classes, whereas the humanities and foreign languages came very easily to me. I remember my mom went in for a conference with my calculus teacher at some point, and my mom made an off-hand comment that I didn’t feel like I was good at math. The teacher was very quick to correct my mom and pointed out that I was making a B in Advanced Calc, which was no small feat, according to her. Hearing that kind of changed my perception. I learned to enjoy math more b/c it is objective…there is one right answer (not like writing a paper for English or history and there being one of dozens of perspectives). I was so proud of myself when I DID work through a problem and get the correct answer…it was such a sense of achievement for me.

It’s funny, b/c years later, I took the GMAT (exam for MBA application) and found myself doing math easily (particularly in geometry)…stuff that had really stumped me and driven me crazy back in highschool. As someone who took the bare minimum of math in college (one course), it amazed me how much my brain had “grown” and matured over the years, that concepts came much more easily to me in my 20s than in my teens.


April 25th, 2013
9:29 am

@ Jeff I have been there my friend. Ours was not math. It was writing a paper. I kept sending her back to the computer over and over again. Took MANY hours on a gorgeous Sunday. She had the rubric but kept only meeting the “minimum” criteria. I said, no we are aiming for the top level and that way the max points (lowest box max score was a C)….I have noticed that since that time she does come home and work on papers sooner than she used to making the most of a bit each day approach.

Challenge may not always be math. Both my daughters do well (read As) in there will little effort. Writing papers is the challenge. Staying engaged in Social Studies or Science is a challenge to some degree.

The younger one likes the academic challenges. When she doesn’t do well she says OK time to study more. She wants the As.

The older one is happy with Bs and above…but since better things come when the As are there she is learning to go for them.

Find their currency and then reward them with it. For the younger one all hw done with As in class means extra video game time and more free play on the weekend. The older one is all about her iPod, phone and friends. So she gets more time in those areas.

Also if it is an area that challenges them, like math…Have them do things in the real world to see how math applies (figure out the tip at the restaurant….count change. Whatever…..this week my younger child determined how much pizza we should buy for her class and set the whole math problem up herself without any prompting. I said lets get the class pizza and she said ok 8 slices and 31 kids we need how many pizzas. She is 4th grade so that she did it without the prompt was good to see).


April 25th, 2013
10:09 am

LOVED math in school, still do. Algebra, geometry, Trig, calculus, etc. I have a mathimatical mind, and it has gotten me pretty far in life. Except when I go up against an Engineering mind. Those two are like night and day. Mathimatical minds are highly organized. Engineering minds have to ponder the situation. My boss is an engineer. We butt heads all the time about who’s way is best. Of course, mine is, but he doesn’t know that yet, because he has to think about it. LOL.

I failed miserably in most science classes. Biology was my nemisis.


April 25th, 2013
12:28 pm

Hmmmm 11 comments in over 12 hours……

How about a FUN TOPIC???


April 25th, 2013
12:38 pm

I am female, found math difficult, and ended up an Accountant.

Moral of the story: STICK WITH IT.

Uh, Mayhem...

April 25th, 2013
2:11 pm

…was spelling difficult, too? “Mathimatical”?


April 25th, 2013
2:27 pm

@Uh, Mayhem – F-OFF!! Is that all you have to contribute?


April 25th, 2013
3:30 pm

I HATE articles about “girls just lack confidence” in (insert academic subject), and we should focus more on them…really? Girls outscore boys in highschool and are going to college in higher numbers than boys. How about this for a topic “Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college. Why? A study coming out this week in The Journal of Human Resources gives an important answer. Teachers of classes as early as kindergarten factor good behavior into grades — and girls, as a rule, comport themselves far better than boys.” What we are really talking about here is the overfeminization of the educational establishment. I’m a woman, a former feminist, and now
am a teacher and mother of boys.


April 25th, 2013
3:56 pm

My younger daughter cried in first grade because of the weekly “horror” of spending each Friday doing estimation. I kept reassuring her that it would get better. She became doggedly determined to master math. Fast forward. She took every math class In high school and then completed a double major in math and astrophysics. She had a couple of mentors along the way who encouraged her, but mostly she was determined to come out on top. AND SHE STILL ESCHEWS Estimation! In astrophysics, I guess, getting exact measurements is important.


April 25th, 2013
4:34 pm

@SEE – I don’t understand what you mean by “overfeminization of the educational establishment”. I do however agree that we need to focus on the boy because we are failing them. I don’t have children but my nephew is struggling in math and reading. He is on Medicaid because his mother’s job does not offer her insurance. (He is not my brother’s biological son and my brother and my nephew’s mother are divorced so he is not covered under my brother’s.) His teachers suggested getting him tested for ADD based on some of his behaviors and learning issues but the first appointment he could get for this school year is in MAY…when school is about over. No one is rallying behind boys, doing whatever it takes to increase their self esteem around learning. Is it because we assume they learn easier or because they don’t need the encouragement? Either way it’s wrong. Boys need the same kind of care that girls do, the same kind of focus as girls do. Keep in mind, we don’t have any of these articles about how to praise little boys into doing better at their piano lessons. But we do discuss girls and PE. Stop dumbing down our girls and start lifting up our boys.


April 25th, 2013
4:58 pm

I knew a chick who divided by zero, once………….ONCE.

Uh, Mayhem...

April 25th, 2013
5:09 pm

…and language arts was not one of your strong points, either, I take…

Uh, Mayhem...

April 25th, 2013
5:13 pm

…and, you have deduced correctly that I have nothing else to offer on this topic (sort of like what you said “Hmmmm 11 comments in over 12 hours……How about a FUN TOPIC???”

I was lousy in math ( my college calculus professor called me in about midway through the quarter my freshman year and said ” I don’t know what you are going to major in but I do not recommend that it be math”) and science so I got nothing to offer on this topic…but, hey, thanks for playing…


April 25th, 2013
5:48 pm

What I mean by overfeminization is when we are afraid to allow boys to be…well, boys! For the average boy, school is not as good a fit as it is for the average girl. More boys have problems with attention and focus than girls. Because of their higher activity level, boys are likely to get into more trouble than girls. And they are not given enough opportunities to move around — both in actual physical activity and in how they learn — because they spend too much time sitting and not enough time learning by doing, making and building things. Here’s some statistics: According to the National Center for Educational Statistics:
Boys are 30 percent more likely than girls to flunk or drop out of school;
When it comes to grades and homework, girls outperform boys in elementary, secondary, high school, college, and even graduate school;
Boys are four to five times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD);
Women outnumber men in higher education with 56 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 55 percent of graduate degrees going to women.
Boys make up two-thirds of the students in special education and are five times more likely to be classified as hyperactive.

Theresa, WAKE UP! The problem isn’t with girls.

The Dixie Diarist

April 25th, 2013
6:00 pm


Debbie is in 5th grade with Sally and Debbie has freckles, too, and brown hair with a pink ribbon in the back that helps keep her pretty hair out of her face. I think Debbie might be a little tall for her age. She has a high, sweet voice I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing it’s so cute. But when she starts whining in her other voice I want to gouge both of my eyes out with a spoon.

I was substituting in Debbie’s math class and Kathy the math teacher left a pile of worksheets on fraction problems for them to complete. When I looked at the first page they were supposed to do and at those million fraction problems I started getting woozy like Norman did on that field trip.
I understand that a lot of people in the world think math is important.

When Debbie started in on how hard these fraction problems were over and over and over and over I felt a deep and instant kinship with her … until she started slapping the page on her desk over and over and over while she was saying real loud and whiney how hard it was over and over and over at the same time. Debbie also asked me real loud wasn’t the numerator supposed to be greater than the denominator or did she ask me over and over and over was the denominator supposed to be greater than the numerator and that’s when I started twitching and my body fluids started pouring out of all of my seven orifices like the Chattahoochee River and I became a moist and creamy blob of quivering, useless, steaming biomatter in the real teacher’s desk chair with two glazed-over eyeballs staring up at the ceiling and if there would have been a math poster on fractions stapled to the ceiling then that would have been an incredible comic and ironic touch but there wasn’t a math poster stapled to the ceiling above Kathy’s desk thank the Lord God almighty.

Gilligan finally said … I’LL help her.

I said thank you, Jesus.

I mean Gilligan.


K's Mom

April 25th, 2013
7:50 pm

@SEE, you are exactly right! I have a 3yo and a 1yo (both boys) and my 3 yo has a FANTASTIC preschool teacher who understands this concept. His previous teacher, not so much! We need to fight for our boys!


April 25th, 2013
8:19 pm

Chicks have to be good at math or they won’t be able to time their periods for sex. Lets face it, every single man would be pregnant over and over all their lives if they had to time the nasty. Come on. Women are the math majors here, not men.



April 25th, 2013
8:33 pm

@ Mayhem, I thought the same thing ( about mathematics) before I read Uh’s comment. I can handle math but I am better at spelling. I am not good at typing so sometimes it appears that my spelling is faulty. Since you spelled it wrong two times, I thought it might be intentional. Why get so mad about it? You are good at math. No one is good at everything. BTW I have always writing papers over math. Again, everyone is different!


April 25th, 2013
9:05 pm


As a teacher, I thank you very much.

I wish more parents were like you.



April 25th, 2013
9:12 pm

Girl-focused STEM programs are important because despite gains made, girls still are more likely to lose interest in math and science when they hit middle school and are less likely to pursue degrees and careers in those fields. Confidence is part of it, but many programs are also focusing on learning styles (team projects, more social approaches to math and science) and emphasis on broader applications (girls often need to know why the math or science matters beyond the classroom, where traditional classroom problem solving and labs have successfully grabbed more boys’ interest).

Focus on boys is growing, but usually not specifically in STEM. Boys’ ed programs so far seem to focus more on reading. Identifying boys’ learning needs and developing programs to serve them is as necessary as doing so for girls.


April 25th, 2013
9:40 pm

@HB: excellent analysis. Agree 100%


April 25th, 2013
10:18 pm

@ SEE- how do you explain the fact that males make more money than females doing the same job in the same field if females are smarter?


April 26th, 2013
4:39 am

@ HB so do we have single gender classes to meet the learning style? What happens to the girl who learns better with the lab/building approach SEE advocates for boys? Or a boy who does better with understading real world application?


April 26th, 2013
6:45 am

Well, I missed the word “preferred” when typing “writing papers” so shame on me!


April 26th, 2013
4:52 pm

@Misty – new studies show that younger women are actually earning more than their male counterparts…which is just about right considering boys have been falling behind girls in school for at least a decade now. Add to that mix the fact that girls get preferential treatment for hiring in STEM fields, and you see that the cards are becoming stacked against boys/young men.


April 29th, 2013
2:24 pm

FCM, no I don’t think we necessarily need single gender classes or should try to force kids into a learning style based on gender alone. When we see, though, that one gender or the other tends to lag behind in certain areas and can identify strategies that will better suit many (not all — nothing is absolute) students of that gender, that’s a good starting point for developing programs that can help close the gaps. New programs should augment current strategies that appear to be working well for only one gender, not replace them.