It makes me sad when I hear a student say something like “I can’t do fractions” or “I’m not good at long division.” I don’t feel sad just because they feel they lack a certain skill. What really gets to me is that they seem to have given up on ever attaining that skill. They seem to feel that they are doomed to failure.
Many researchers and educators have come to recognize that “people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” [Kimball and Smith] In other words, a child’s belief that he or she cannot improve his or her math skills actually results in (continued) poor math performance.
The brain pays attention to, and prompts us to act in accordance with, our beliefs, our thoughts, and our words. When a child says, “I can’t do fractions,” the brain responds with, “You’re right! You can’t do fractions!” And when that child sees a problem involving fractions, he recoils. His brain says, “Don’t even bother. You can’t do fractions.”
The good news is that there is a super easy way to turn this effect on its head, so to speak. That’s where the magic word comes in. The word is “yet.” Imagine that the child who has trouble with fractions says, “I can’t do fractions … yet.” The brain reponds with, “No you don’t have that skill right now, but you can learn it!” The child sees a fractions problem and thinks, “I don’t know to do this but I know I can learn how.” Add the word “yet” to any “I can’t …” or “I don’t know how to …” statement and you’ve turned it around. You’ve acknowledged that you have the ability to learn it, and you hope, you even believe, that you will learn it. That’s powerful.
So the next time you hear your child make a negative statement about any subject that they have not mastered, how about prompting them to add the magic word to the end of the sentence? I do that with all of my students. Now they say, “I don’t know my multiplication tables … yet.” Or “I don’t understand variables … yet.” They know that with a little focus and perseverance they can get it, whatever “it” is.
I smile every time I hear it, and my students smile every time they say it. “Yet” truly is a magic word.