Repairing the "I'm Bad at Math" Attitude

After teaching middle school math for almost five years, I have found that one of the biggest hurdles and misconceptions for students is their attitude and confidence in their own math abilities. As a math teacher, one huge challenge is changing the "I'm bad at math" attitude that some students enter the year with. Of course, not all students carry this attitude with them. Many students are confident in their math skills. However, I think that making a dent in the attitude of students who lack that confidence might be the most important, and challenging, part of teaching math. Here are a few classroom routines and ideas that I have found to help repair and change the "I'm bad at math" mindset.

(1) Make Math Fun
After reflecting on my first year of teaching 6th grade math, I found out very quickly that I needed to make math fun and engaging. I think the first step in changing the attitude of students who have struggled in math is making math class a place they enjoy coming to. One of the classroom routines I started is the Math Joke of the Week. It takes about 10 minutes per week to look up a fun (or corny) math joke and get it up on the board. Students love it when the joke is something they can try to guess, and I always hear about it quickly when I forget to get a new joke up.

Incorporating some random fun routines and things around the classroom can also start to get these students to enjoy coming into math class. Last year, I blogged about some of the fun things around my classroom. Although a lot of these aren't math related, I think they can help the general attitude of the students who come into the class! also have tried to make the learning process more fun for my students. In 6th grade math, we play a lot of math games that reinforce the concepts we are learning about. I've created many of these, but have also found a ton of awesome ideas floating around as well. My students love playing this Kaboom (also called Zap) game, which I adapted to practice solving equations. One of the other favorites are the Connect Four games that I created for various topics. My Connect Four: Multiplying Decimals is a freebie in my TpT store! As much as possible, I have tried to make learning and practicing our math concepts into some sort of game or engaging activity.

(2) Get Kids Moving
Many of my lessons during my first year of teaching involved me at the overhead projector (yes, I was still using an old-school overhead projector) and students at their seats watching me do examples. Reflecting on that first year, I discovered a few things. Number one, I probably damaged my eyesight by looking into that dang projector all day. Two, I was doing most of the work while students sat and watched. And three, a lot of the time students weren't sitting and watching... they were doing something they weren't supposed to be doing, not paying attention, or just flat out bored (and looking back I don't blame them). This structure made it difficult for me to reach the students who felt they were bad at math. I switched to a math workshop structure, where students rotate around the room to different stations each class period. This structure allows me to meet in a small group with all students, which helps me reach the students that normally struggle. Whether it's math workshop, or some other structure, I feel like it is important to get students out of their seats. Of course that's not to say we never have stretches where we are taking notes, watching me do problems, etc., but I have tried to limit the length and amount of these. More details about how I run the math workshop are at the tab at the top of my blog!

(3) Challenge Students students enjoy a challenge and some competition... at least if there is a prize involved! Although my Challenge of the Week problems are often completed by my students who are very confident and strong in math, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of students who try these problems. There is nothing more rewarding than when a student who usually finds math difficult, gets the challenge problem. I put up a new problem every Monday. Students have until Thursday to enter (it's optional). On Friday, we go over and discuss the answer as a class - any correct answers get a mint! This is another routine that is pretty easy to set up, takes minimal time each week, and is a great way to stretch students thinking! If you are looking for some 5th/6th grade level problems, a full-year set is free in my store. The optional, low-risk, nature of the Challenge of the Week really encourages everybody to try it since there isn't any penalty for getting it wrong.


  1. "make math fun", yes that true, but i can't do that. why?

  2. I loved reading about how to repair the "I'm bad at math" mentality. I hear that phrase so often from my students as well. I feel that there is a big jump from 5th grade to 6th grade math in Common Core and that the students lack confidence and have "math anxiety" In 6th grade the math moves so quickly and covers such a wide range that the students are often frustrated when they can't remember something that they learned at the beginning of the year.

    I loved the idea of having a challenge problem and math joke on the board. What way to feel the students more comfortable and intrigued than a cute little joke for them? Thank you so much for the FREE resource, I am so excited to set up my challenge board and give all my students the chance to grow and think outside the box!

    I found that something that works well in my class is to have the students track their own progress. The students have a paper that I give them at the beginning of the year and they track their percentage for each chapter test that they take throughout the year. The paper stays in their binder the whole year and they get to reflect on how they have done with each test. In addition I keep a chart where I track the students as a class so they can see that as a whole what they are achieving together.

    Lastly, I have a BRAG board where the students can hang on a clothespin line any work that they are proud of. It is so great when a student who struggles finally gets to put something on the BRAG board and the other students recognize them for their hard work and dedication!

  3. Do you have your Math jokes compiled anywhere? Do you use one particular website? I would love a list of the jokes. Thanks!