‘I can do this!’: Positive self-talk can boost a child’s math grades, study finds

UTRECHT, Netherlands — Math can be an especially difficult subject for students, and many develop a long-lasting sense of low self-esteem when it comes to mathematical skills very early in their academic careers. Now, a new study finds that children dealing with low self-confidence in their math skills can improve their performance on tests by simply reminding themselves that they’re doing the best they can. This type of positive self-talk should be centered on effort, not ability.

“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,” says study leader Sander Thomaes, professor of psychology at Utrecht University, in a statement. “But until now, we didn’t have a good idea of whether this helped children’s achievement. 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.”

A total of 212 students between the ages of 9-13 (grades 4-6) took part in the research, all hailing from middle-class neighborhoods in the Netherlands. This age range was specifically chosen because at around this time many students start to become more self-aware and self-conscious of school subjects or tasks they may be struggling to succeed in. On that note, the subject of math was also chosen because it’s a skill that is easily compromised by negative self-beliefs about one’s own abilities.

First, the students were asked to report how confident they were in their math skills. Then, they took the first half of a standardized math exam in their classrooms, just like any other test. But, after completing the first part of the exam, the participants were randomly assigned to perform one of three experimental conditions before tackling the second half of the test: effort-centric self-talk (“I will do my very best!”), ability-centric self-talk (“I am very good at this!”), or no self-talk at all.

The students who assured themselves that they were doing their best ended up performing better than the other two experimental groups. More over, students who were particularly down on their math abilities seemed to benefit the most from their internal pep talk. Surprisingly, students who engaged in ability-centric self-talk did not see their grades improve at all.

“Our study found that the math performance of children with low self-confidence benefits when they tell themselves that they will make an effort,” explains study co-author Eddie Brummelman, assistant professor of child development at the University of Amsterdam. “We did not find the same result among children with low self-confidence who spoke to themselves about ability. Self-talk about effort is the key.”

The study’s authors made it a point to warn that, as of now, their findings only apply to students in grades 4-6. Furthermore, since this study was held in the Netherlands, it is unclear if students from other nations would enjoy the same mathematical benefits from positive self-talk.

The study is published in the scientific journal Child Development.