Thursday, June 27, 2013

What stops girls from learning math?

Math is for geeks. Nerds. The robotics kids. Definitely not for girls.


Why do some girls go from budding math scholars in grade school to a “dumbed down” shell of themselves in high school? What happens to these gifted girls who love the logic, complexity and challenge of math, but feel they must forego their passion to fit in?

Girls actually excel at math and science, and most research has failed to find any striking differences between the genders in actual math ability1,2. Math is as interesting to the girls as it is to boys in grade school. Yet, few girls pursue math as a career choice in college. According to, only 12% of engineering students are women, and 20% of women who received a math or science degree actually work in their field of study. 
What, then, drives girls away from math?

Lack of role models. Until recent years, women typically shied away from math and science as career choices. Even gifted girls who thrived in math often pursued other paths as they got older, as they could not envision themselves in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) career. Some researchers have suggested that lack of encouragement and a shortage of female role models in math-related fields have contributed to the shortage. A study of math achievement data for 14-16 year-olds from almost half a million students in 69 countries concluded that boys were not better at math; they were just more confident3. In addition, girls from countries where there was more gender equity performed better on math assessment tests. Those who performed poorly resided in countries where women have been devalued and where there were few successful female role models. The authors concluded that the presence of female role models who excel in math is critical to girls’ future success.

The importance of female role models and confidence in girls’ math abilities was also highlighted in another study of first and second grade students4. Poor math performance among girls was more likely to occur when their female teachers were uncomfortable with math. However, the teachers’ math anxiety had no impact on the boys in the study. The researchers concluded that these teachers were viewed as role models, and may have inadvertently conveyed their own discomfort with math, affecting the girls’ performance.

Gender role identification. Given the scarcity of female role models, and assumptions about male superiority in math, it would follow that girls who hold clearly defined gender role distinctions might feel less comfortable pursuing math. For example, one study of college students found that women who strongly identified with gender role stereotypes, and who were more likely to view themselves as feminine, performed worse in an introductory calculus class than women who did not hold similar views. Although there were no significant differences in their SAT math scores, these young women also were less likely to pursue a math-oriented career5.

Peer pressure. Just as teachers and adult role models may influence math achievement, peer pressure also plays a key role. As they enter adolescence, girls often feel torn between confidently expressing their talents, as they had in elementary school, and suppressing their abilities to fit in and receive attention from boys. If prevailing stereotypes brand math skills as “nerdy” or masculine, and if girls lack the self-esteem to excel in “traditionally” male fields, they may choose popularity over academics. Recent research has shown, for example, that high school girls frequently rely on the opinions of their female friends when deciding what level of math to take, and whether they should take additional math classes6. Peers’ attitudes can ultimately influence self-perception, academic risk-taking, and future career choices. 
Math anxiety. Insecurity and anxiety about math can manifest as full-blown panic during tests, obsessive preoccupation math performance, and avoidance of math classes when possible. It can contribute to poor grades, erode confidence in a range of academic abilities, and limit career goals. Although both genders experience math anxiety, a recent study7 supported previous findings indicating that girls were more likely to suffer from it than boys, and that math anxiety predicted poor test performance for girls, but not for boys.

So what can be done?

1.  Girls need exposure to women role models in math and the sciences, where they can see competent, vibrant women who excel in these fields. They need support so that they can embrace math without fear of being labeled “nerdy” or masculine in the process. Family encouragement is important, but schools also can offer opportunities for meeting women in math-related careers, or provide field trips to sites where women are employed in STEM careers. 
2.  Negative stereotypes about women’s abilities must be challenged and confronted. Girls, parents and schools need to be educated about the effect gender role stereotyping plays in limiting girls’ math achievement. Gifted girls, in particular, need to find resources where they can engage their curiosity and interests, and allow themselves to appreciate their strengths. For example, actress Danica McKellar challenges adolescent resistance to math through books and a website,, encouraging girls to excel at math.

3.  Try an anxiety-reduction plan to reduce anxiety about math. This could include gradual exposure to math-related situations, stress management and relaxation skills for approaching math problems, or challenging negative beliefs about math. Unrealistic expectations, perfectionism and self-doubt need to be challenged. Programs to address math anxiety are often available in guidance departments and college counseling centers. When math anxiety starts to affect self-esteem and erodes feelings of self-worth, though, therapy may be a helpful resource for understanding and managing the stress.


1. Hyde, J & Mertz, J. (2009). Gender, culture and mathematics performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (22), 8801-8807.

2. Lindberg, S. Hyde, J, Petersen, J., & Linn, M. (2010). New trends in gender and mathematics performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136(6), 1123-1135.

3. Else-Quest, N., Hyde, J.,& Linn, M. (2010). Cross-National Patterns of Gender Differences in Mathematics: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136 (1), 103-127.

4. Beilock, S., Gunderson, E., Ramirez, G., & Levine, S. (2010). Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 107 (5), 1860-1863.

5. Kiefer, A. & Sekaquaptewa, D. (2007). Implicit stereotypes, gender identification, an math-related outcomes: A prospective study of female college students. Psychological Science, 18, 13-18.

6.  Crosnoe, R., Riegle-Crumb, C., Fields, S., Frank, K., & Muller, C. (2008). Peer group contexts of girls and boys' academc experiences. Child Development, 79 (1), 139.

7.  Devine,  A. Fawcett, K. Szucs, D., % Dowler, A. (2012). Gender differences in mathematics anxiety and the relation to mathematics and performance while controlling for test anxiety. Behavioral and Brain Functions, 8, 33.

Monday, June 10, 2013

What to say to your gifted child...about being gifted

What should you tell your child about being gifted? Whether identified as gifted, referred for evaluation, or placed in a “gifted and talented program," children quickly form impressions about all the fuss. Does this mean I’m really smarter than the other kids? Will they see me as different/better/weirder? Will I have to live up to even MORE expectations from my parents and teachers? What if I don’t want to be gifted anymore?

Parents themselves often struggle with how to understand giftedness and its effect on their child. It is even more difficult for a six-, eight-, or ten-year-old to grasp its full meaning, and place it in a context that makes sense. These children already know they are different, as do the other children around them. They have most likely weathered boredom and frustration in classes geared toward the average learner. They may have already experienced both positive and negative feedback about their interests, quirks, and academic talents. While the label of “gifted” provides some validation for what they already know about themselves, it can also create uncertainty, misunderstanding, and even anxiety.

Children look to parents to provide a framework for understanding what the term gifted really means. The following are possible explanations you might suggest to your child:

1.  Gifted is just a word. It doesn’t mean someone is better than someone else. It was named a long time ago because people felt that it was a “gift” to be able to read well/solve problems quickly/paint beautifully/(you fill in the blanks). People might feel the same way about kids who can run really fast or dunk basketballs easily. It is a very fortunate thing when something comes easily to someone. But it does not make them better than anyone else. People are special for all kinds of wonderful reasons. Being gifted does not make someone any more special than the next person.
2.  Gifted is a word given to kids who have different learning needs. (Yes, it sounds like jargon. But it is an accurate way of confirming and explaining why your child needs accelerated/enriched/differentiated learning instruction.) Everyone is different. Just like some people are taller or shorter than others, or more or less athletic, some people need a different approach in school to make learning more interesting.

3.  You were found to be “gifted” because of some tests you took. We asked the school to give you these tests because you complained about being bored. We knew that if the testing labeled you as “gifted,” we could ask the school to give you more interesting work. We didn't care if you were gifted or not. We didn't care what score you got on the test. The only reason for taking it was to give you more choices in school. (Note: it is never a good idea to tell a young child his or her IQ score.)

4.  Giftedness is something that is a part of you, just like your eye color or height. It doesn't come from how hard you work in school, and will not go away if you slack off. It is always there and gives you some great choices to do some really creative/intensive/interesting/(you fill in the blanks) things. If you work hard, you can achieve a lot. If you don’t, you will lose out on the opportunities your abilities have given you. Just like you can decide what clothes you wear or what haircut you get, only YOU can decide how to use your abilities.

5.  Giftedness comes in all shapes and sizes. Some kids are really gifted with math. Some are great writers. Some are born leaders. Others paint up a storm. Occasionally, a few gifted children are good at many things; most are not. You have your subjects in school that come really easily to you, and have interests that you love. We hope you continue to put a lot of energy into these things. But you still need to work hard in those areas that are not easy for you. 

6.  Gifted children sometimes feel they are different from other kids. Even if you like how easy school is, it can be uncomfortable when you feel like you are different from a lot of the other kids in your class. It’s normal to feel this way. We can help you to figure out what to say if other kids make comments about your interests. We also can help you find things you do have in common with some of the other kids or help you find outside activities that school does not offer.

These ideas are just a few suggestions for starting a conversation with your gifted child. You will need to modify them to suit your child’s needs, and incorporate your family's beliefs and values. What is most important, though, is conveying that giftedness and achievements play no role in how much you love and appreciate your child.

If you have some suggestions for what to say to your child, please offer them in the comments section below.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Countering misinformation: How parents can challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about giftedness

“She says her child is gifted. What makes her think he’s so special?” Most parents cringe at the thought of overhearing those words. The dreaded backlash that comes from misinformation and envy is a nightmare for parents of “gifted” children. No one wants to be seen as an elitist, overindulgent, blindly adoring parent. “She must be a Tiger Mom. She’s hot-housing her kid. He thinks his child can do no wrong. They think she deserves more than other kids. They think they’re better than us.”

These cutting words devalue the family, the child, and the vast numbers of teachers, researchers, and psychologists who have educated, studied and counseled gifted children. These slings and arrows vaguely ring of stereotyping that now would be considered shocking if applied to parents of a child with dyslexia or ADHD. Parents who advocate for their learning disabled child are rarely labeled as “flash-card parents,” overinvolved and obsessed with achievement; those who seek counseling for a child who is anxious because of failing in school are rarely viewed as overindulgent.

Parents of gifted children are often regarded with caution by those who do not understand that giftedness is a learning difference, identified through careful assessment, and marked by an IQ at least two standard deviations above the norm. It is not an achievement parents create through early intervention, immersion in rigorous preschool programs, or French lessons at age five. While educational enrichment can certainly enhance learning for anyone, it does not produce giftedness.

As a result, parents often feel isolated, lonely and misunderstood, a striking parallel to how their child may feel at school. In addition to worrying about whether their child will fit in, they also struggle with how they can be a part of the school community when their child is so different. They may downplay their child’s successes, and even offer a disclaimer when describing him to others, noting his flaws and negative traits in an attempt to avoid any appearance of bragging. A blog post on Childhood Inspired poignantly highlights the loneliness one parent experiences when trying to describe her gifted child's 

Parents need to educate the misinformed.

It would be ideal and certainly convenient if families could rely on schools, the media or even governmental agencies to spread the word. But that is not going to happen. At least not just yet. While various advocates, researchers, educators, and organizations support gifted education, they face an uphill battle in the face of budget constraints and divergent priorities and demands. Rather than apologizing for gifted children’s abilities, parents may need to assume the role of educator when speaking to others who do not understand. Here are some ideas you might want to try:

Help the misinformed appreciate your child’s learning style. Explain that your child thrives in an environment that challenges his interest in scientific investigation. Or mathematical problem-solving. Or visual-spatial thinking. Inform them that based on the school’s assessment, your child requires some different instruction that will engage his interests more fully. Instead of noting his advanced abilities, explain that he has developmental needs that are somewhat out of sync with his actual age, warranting subject acceleration or enriched instruction. Just like kids walk and talk at different ages and stages, some learn math or reading at different ages as well.

Explain that all kids learn differently, and that your child's educational needs are not always met in the regular classroom. Without appropriate accommodations, your child will not receive an adequate education. Children who learn “differently” and do not receive appropriate accommodations sometimes fail to learn, act out, lose interest in school, become a distraction for their peers, or develop unhealthy behaviors outside of school. You do not want this for your child. No parent would. That is why you are advocating for appropriate instruction.

Remind the misinformed that gifted services follow from a careful psychoeducational assessment. You are not demanding these services. You didn't twist anyone's arm. If your child did not qualify for them based on a thorough evaluation, she would not be receiving them. The district has agreed to provide your child with the additional services she requires for her education. 

Avoid using the “smart” word. You know your child is smart. Beyond smart. Yet, “smart” is not particularly descriptive, has an evaluative connotation, and evokes an emotional reaction in the listener. Along those lines, avoid using the term “gifted” as well. While technically accurate, the label of “giftedness” is problematic, as it arouses confusion, envy, and bitterness. 

Sharing your greatest excitement, fears and concerns about your gifted child may need to be reserved for your closest family and friends, and for other parents of gifted children who truly understand. Over time, though, you may be able to educate the misinformed enough to freely use the "gifted" word without apology or hesitation. The suggestions above are several examples of what might help toward educating others about your child's needs. Perhaps you could add some of your own ideas in the comments section below.