Kids Get Better Math Scores if They Talk to Themselves: Study
Thu, April 22, 2021

Kids Get Better Math Scores if They Talk to Themselves: Study

Kids who silently encourage themselves may also bring greater success, especially when taking exams, a new study suggests / Photo by: milatas via Shutterstock

 

Children often underachieve if they think poorly of themselves, which is why teachers and parents are usually advised to praise their efforts instead of their natural ability for them to be successful.

Kids who silently encourage themselves may also bring greater success, especially when taking exams, a new study suggests. The study found that engaging in positive self-talk can help children boost their achievement.

For instance, repeating statements like "I will do my very best" while taking a math test can help improve test scores for some kids.

 

Self-Talk for Positive Results

Researchers from the Utrecht University, the University of Applied Sciences Leiden, the University of Amsterdam, and the University of Southampton conducted the study involving 212 children from the Netherlands to understand how positive self-talk affects their performance.

The children were aged 9 to 13 years old, the right age to ask them about how competent they felt at math (given that this is the age at when negative feelings about their academic abilities become more common).

They underwent a standardized math test that was divided into two parts. After the first half, the researchers randomly asked the children to talk to themselves; either by focusing on their effort (saying that they will do their best), their ability (affirming their innate ability), or neither of the two.

The children were instructed to repeat the praises of self-encouragement given to them in the second half of the test, Newsweek reports, especially when they encountered a particularly difficult problem.

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In the end, the researchers found that kids who had low self-confidence but spoke about effort did better in the second half of the test compared to kids who didn't self-talk.

The researchers, therefore, conclude that children can boost their academic achievements—especially if they have negative thoughts about their competence—by encouraging themselves to put effort into the given task.

Self-Talk About Effort Is the Key

Children who self-talked about their effort experienced great benefits despite the negative belief of their competence. It even reached the point where it allowed them to maintain their performance.

On the other hand, kids who focused on their ability ("I'm very good at this!") showed no improvements in their test scores regardless of their perception of their abilities, according to a press release.

The researchers said they chose to focus on the children's math skills because of its key role in schools' curriculum and the fact that negative beliefs about one's ability affects the performance on the subject.

"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," said Sander Thomaes, the study leader and professor of psychology at Utrecht University.

Thomaes added that, before the study, they didn't have a good grasp on if this advice helped children improve their performance.

"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."

The researchers noted that the results apply only to children in the given age bracket and may not be observed in kids of other ages. They added that the response to self-talk may also differ among children in different countries and cultures.

Importance of Self-Talk

Children begin to talk to themselves at a young age, particularly toddlers and preschoolers who often do so out loud. 

The researchers sad they don't stop even when they get older and only speak to themselves in silence. CNN says this helps them better express their "inner world, enliven play, and regulate behavior."

Previous studies have shown how positive self-talk improves a child's performance in sports such as handball, soccer, and swimming. However, those who engaged in this activity but emphasized incompetence, failure, and personal harm were found to experience more anxiety and depression.

When it came to math, the Dutch researchers found that self-talk tore down a "psychological barrier" that could've affected children's performance. This approach doesn't seem to benefit children who already performed up to their potential.

"When children with negative competence beliefs work on mathematics problems, they are prone to anticipate and worry about failure," the study said. "They experience challenge (e.g., a difficult problem to solve) as a signal that they lack ability, triggering disengagement from the task and worsening performance."

It added that self-talk about effort may address this process by shifting children's attention away from their perceived lack of ability—a quality that is beyond their control—to exerting effort, a quality that they can control.

Stereotypes that people who work hard have low ability, possibly because schools give more value to innate skills that are sometimes observed in adolescents, were not found at the primary school level. 

Children begin to talk to themselves at a young age, particularly toddlers and preschoolers who often do so out loud / Photo by: Dean Drobot via Shutterstock