Self-Talk Helps Children Improve Math Performance

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A study done in the Netherlands suggests that children who engage in effort-focused self-talk can improve their math scores. Two forms of self-talk are effort-focused and ability-focused. Effort-focused self-talk includes mantras like, “I will do my best” or “I am going to try very hard.” In contrast, ability-focused self-talk involves statements like, “I am good at this” or “I can do this.” The study’s findings show that children who used effort-focused self-talk improved their performance after taking a two-part math exam. The benefits were especially pronounced in children who felt incompetent with their math abilities. To conduct the study, the researchers asked 212 children aged 9 to 13 years old about how competent they felt in math. Mathematics was the focus subject because it is central to a school curriculum, and performance on the subject is often influenced by negative beliefs about one’s ability. The children then took the first half of a standardized math test. Then, they were grouped and tasked to either not self-talk, self-talk focusing on effort, or self-talk focusing on ability. Afterward, they completed the test. According to the researchers, children expect failure when they have negative feelings about their skills. Children would interpret difficulties as a sign of their perceived lack of ability. Effort-focused self-talk shifts children’s attention away from their missing ability and toward putting effort into a task. The researchers pointed out, however, that the study’s findings are limited to only one specific age group, and that it may not apply to teens. In addition, since the study was conducted in the Netherlands, children’s reaction to self-talk may be different in other countries.

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