3 Things Every Child Should Know About Math Mistakes

Way too many girls are scared to death of making math mistakes.

If your girl cries at math time, makes excuses when she gets a problem wrong, hides her work, refuses to keep trying, or seems anxious and stressed, the culprit is likely her fear of making a mistake.

She is telling herself a story inside her head that goes something like this:

  1. People who are good at math get all the problems right.
  2. If I’m good at math, I should be able to get all the problems right.
  3. If I make a mistake, that means I’m bad at math.
  4. If I’m bad at math, that means I’m not smart…
  5. Mistakes are proof that I’m not smart.

Math anxiety and fear of making a mistake go hand in hand. When girls become afraid to get a math problem wrong, stress and anxiety go through the roof.

We need to give girls a healthier way to think about mistakes–one that helps them relax and enjoy math, to take more risks, and to keep trying when math gets hard.

There are different kinds of mistakes, and we should treat each one differently. When you explain these three types of mistakes to your daughter, she can begin to look more closely at what mistakes can teach her and let go of the fear that she can’t do math.

When your child gets a wrong answer, say, “I see a mistake in this problem. Can you spot it?” Very often, just by reading through it again she will be able to fix it on her own. If that’s the case, it was most likely an “oops” mistake.

1. “Oops” Math Mistakes

When a child adds instead of subtracts or answers only part of the problem, these are “oops” mistakes. Oops mistakes are when she knows how to do that kind of problem, but made a silly calculation error.

The most common reasons for “oops” mistakes are:

  • Rushing
  • Being distracted
  • Feeling anxious or stressed
  • Not reading the instructions carefully
  • Feeling tired or hungry

When a child makes “oops” mistakes, make it clear that you already know she knows the math. Let her know you’re not worried about that.

Instead of focusing on the mistake, work together to solve the root problem: she may need to slow down, read the instructions, take deep breaths to calm down, etc.

NOTE: If your child is anxious about math, she may try to pass off every mistake as an “oops” mistake and say she already knew that.

If she is not able to easily correct her work without your help, chances are she is still shaky on the math, and it’s most likely a “clue” mistake. 

2. “Clue” Mistakes

“Clue” mistakes are potentially the most valuable type of math mistakes, because they help you see what’s going on inside your child’s head.

These are the most surprising mistakes to your child, because she did exactly what she thought she was supposed to do, and still got the problem wrong.

Take a look at this problem by a second grader:

Can you figure out what she did?

She added in a way that made sense to her: 4+2=6, and 3+9=12. Her mistake gives you valuable clues about how she’s thinking about addition.

When your child is surprised at getting a problem wrong, say, “Let’s be detectives and figure out what went wrong. Start at the beginning and explain to me how you solved this problem.”

Having your child walk you step-by-step through how she solved it will often make it clear to you what happened—and she may realize it herself while she is describing it to you.

The beautiful thing about “clue” mistakes is that by correcting just one, she’ll know enough to fix all the others like it by herself and is unlike to make that kind of mistake again.

3. “Stretch” Mistakes

“Stretch” mistakes are a little different because this is a problem you don’t EXPECT your child to get right the first time.

When kids try something hard—a tricky puzzle, a multi-step problem, or maybe an advanced math skill—we know they are going to struggle a little. They’ll get some wrong before they get any right. That’s the whole point.

It’s important for girls to know up front when they are starting a problem that you expect them to make mistakes. The whole point is to struggle a little; that’s what makes their brain grow.

(When my kids finish a problem, I ask if it was too hard, too easy, or just right. If they say it was a little easy, I find them something harder. They know I always expect them to be challenged.)

When we change the expectation to “you’re SUPPOSED to make mistakes as you learn”, girls can relax and just have fun as they explore challenging math. They can start to let go of self-judgment and anxiety and become happier, more resilient math learners.