Support provided by early childhood educators can put students on a path that will lead to success in math for years to come.

Working in schools during the global Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for students to be resilient in many aspects of their lives. As students and teachers work to rebuild relationships, we can plan ways to best support students’ resilience and continued learning as well as to inspire students to engage with and enjoy math. This is especially true for young learners in preschool and elementary school. If students learn to be resilient when it comes to math at an early age, it will serve them well throughout their academic careers.

What is mathematical resilience?

Resilient learners have a growth mindset with respect to learning. They are comfortable with challenge and the idea of mathematical struggle. Resilient learners recognize when they are stuck and have the language to ask for support when they need it. Most important, they hold a belief that they can “do math.”

Why do students need to be mathematically resilient?

Many students believe that they are not good at math. These learners need to overcome any negative attitudes they might hold about math class, which may be attributed to a number of factors. For example, many students hold a belief that math should come easily, and when they don’t know an answer right away, they come to the conclusion that they are not good at math, leaving them unmotivated to keep trying.

Building resilience takes time but is achievable in a classroom environment that not only fosters a positive culture of learning and collaboration but also values mathematical struggle—an environment where students’ learning needs are understood using formative assessments and observations and where teachers spend quality time with individual students and encourage discussion between students. Problems may need to be worked through to develop persistence and risk-taking.

Regular math chats, along with noticing and talking about the math around us in everyday experiences, help students develop a positive attitude toward math from a young age. Teachers can explicitly teach technical language and how to show understanding using multiple representations such as objects, drawings, and symbols.

It’s important to make math visual. For example, teachers can use a hundreds chart to support learning about the relationships between different numbers. Some students may need extra work developing their number sense using manipulatives and organizational tools such as ten frames for counting collections.

Mathematics is not just a set of skills to be learned. Supporting students to become numerate involves developing both mathematical skills and knowledge. Focusing on the big ideas ensures that lessons not only involve developing fluency in the required mathematics skills but also help develop understanding and knowledge in a variety of contexts. For example, in Australia the areas of focus in primary school include trusting the count, place value, and multiplicative thinking.

Novel, real-world, culturally relevant problems help spark student interest and facilitate deep learning. Tasks should allow for struggle so that students understand that they don’t have to get the answer quickly. Regular, short “number talks” help all students to become involved and strengthen fluency, intuition, and mental math strategies. Focus is on process and communication rather than speed. Over time and with practice, students’ ability to explain and critique situations improves.

There are many websites that offer excellent, free ideas for math tasks. It’s well worth spending time finding suitable problems. For example, NRICH Maths has challenging tasks and problems that help develop thinking skills, and Math for Love has great ideas for number talks. The reSolve website features well-researched lessons that foster inquiry.

Students who are given the opportunity to be involved in regular problem-based tasks and are allowed time for exploration and finding solutions in collaboration with their peers can observe how others persevere. By sharing mental solution strategies aloud, students are exposed to how math concepts can be used and applied.

The way in which information is internalized depends on whether it’s within a learner’s zone of proximal development (ZPD). ZPD—that range of knowledge that the textbook Elementary and Middle School Mathematics: Teaching Developmentally says might be “out of reach for a person to learn on his or her own, but is accessible if the learner has support from peers or more knowledgeable others”—is important to consider when working to help students develop resilience.

Students may initially feel challenged and uncomfortable as they move into their ZPD and may need support with finding strategies to help them when they feel stuck. All students need opportunities to experience struggle in mathematics. When exposing students to new content, teachers can initially provide scaffolding tools such as manipulatives to help students access a task.

The teacher’s role is not to step in and show or explain, but to encourage individual approaches to a problem where diversity and risk-taking are honored. It’s important to ask questions that help students to make connections between concepts and include clarifying prompts:

  • What have you tried?
  • What do you know?
  • What are you trying to find out?

The teacher can create variations on each task or problem (“what-ifs”) to guide dialogue to a shift in focus and provide more depth of understanding (“That didn’t work; what else could you try?”).

In order to be successful in math, all students need to value mathematical thinking and discovery and to see themselves as active math learners. Our job is to help foster attributes of resilience and a love of the subject.