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Developing a positive mindset about mathematics in early childhood education

When teaching mathematics in early childhood education, the educator’s mindset is just as important as a child’s. Author Marianne Knaus explains how to develop and encourage a growth mindset.
Early childhood education

Great educators in early childhood education will have a lasting impact on children and their attitude to learning. One concern, however, is the negative attitude towards mathematics. A positive attitude is imperative for the implementation of high-quality teaching and learning. Yet, many educators suffer from mathematics anxiety, a feeling of fear, tension or apprehension.

A lack of confidence in mathematical ability can even develop a phobia toward mathematics. Mathematics anxiety can be the result of poor teaching practices experienced in childhood.

Being fearful of mathematics has the potential for educators to restrict the range of experiences provided and narrow the curriculum. Research shows significant relationships between an educator’s attitude towards mathematics and their mathematical beliefs and content knowledge.

Developing a growth mindset in early childhood education

However, negative mindsets regarding personal mathematical performance can be changed by adopting a growth mindset. Dweck’s (2017) growth mindset theory for learning has identified two types of mindsets, fixed or growth.

The theory proposes that those with a fixed mindset believe their intelligence and abilities are fixed and cannot be changed. Those with a growth mindset (or incremental view) see intelligence as malleable, view mistakes as fundamental to the learning process and will accept and persevere when faced with challenges and adversity.

Growth mindset is a social cognitive approach to motivation, achievement and success. Tips for early childhood educators to enhance their own growth mindset include:

  • understanding theories of intelligence realising that there is no such thing as a mathematics person, everyone can learn mathematics,
  • believing in yourself and applying hard work; it is a growth subject and takes time to learn,
  • providing positive affirmation and environmental cues while engaged in hands on mathematics tasks,
  • knowing that mistakes are valuable and help to grow your brain, and
  • awareness that mathematics is about creativity and creating solutions.
Children in early childhood education
Photo by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash

What to teach in the early childhood education

Another way to improve maths understanding is to be aware of the mathematical concepts and what to teach children in the early years. From a young age, a child is naturally curious and eager to learn about their surroundings and the world they live in. They construct their own understandings as they observe and participate in everyday life.

Studies have shown that what children know in early childhood education  is a predictor to mathematics achievement and success in later years (Aubrey et al., 2006; Aunio & Niemivirta, 2010; Sarama & Clements 2009).

The development of mathematical understanding occurs in a range of settings: at home, early learning centres and while shopping or at the park. Parents and educators, when they provide the necessary language, meaningful experiences and opportunities, can enhance children’s early mathematical learning.

Maths for young children is not just about numbers and shapes. The content includes pattern (early algebra), counting, number, early operations, measurement, shape and spatial awareness (geometry), matching, sorting, data analysis and the introduction of chance (statistics and probability). Everyone can teach maths – they just need to know how and what to teach.

Being aware of the mathematics occurring in everyday contexts makes a good starting point.

Mathematics experiences in early childhood education

Maths learning in early childhood is a playful hands-on approach to learning in everyday contexts.

To incorporate mathematics in play experiences an active learning environment is best – one that fosters curiosity, problem-solving opportunities, persistence and confidence. Maths can be integrated into early childhood education centres’ routines and learning experiences. Both throughout the curriculum and across a range of curriculum areas, including science, literacy, society and environment.

High-quality learning requires a balance of planned experiences and informal spontaneous experiences that occur during the course of the day. The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) reminds us that educators are flexible in their roles as ‘they make use of planned and spontaneous ‘teachable moments’ to scaffold children’s learning’ (AGDE, 2022, p. 21).

It is important for early childhood educators to enjoy what they are doing and to model an appreciation of mathematics and learning. Language can be used as a tool for teaching maths concepts. Research suggests that when educators guide and shape conversations a higher level of learning takes place.

When educators use mathematical language in meaningful contexts children are able to make the link between the spoken word and what the word means.

The Early Years Learning Framework and mindset

An educator’s mindset can be passed on to children unintentionally. The EYLF states, “Encouraging children’s positive attitudes and competencies in literacy and numeracy are essential for all children’s successful learning. The foundations for these competencies are built in early childhood” (AGDE, 2022, p. 57).

Mathematical mindsets highlighting Boaler’s research on mathematical mindsets (2022) focusses on six points to empower maths learning when teaching. Remind children that:

  1. The brain is not fixed, and maths learning is possible at any age. Teach children how the brain works and that it can grow.
  2. Struggle and mistakes help us to learn by strengthening neural pathways. Analyse and fix mistakes.
  3. Potential is impacted by beliefs; a positive mindset can improve learning. Be aware of your own attitude toward maths.
  4. Speed is not important, or a measure of success and it is better to think deeply to gain understanding. The emphasis is not on speed, questions are more important.
  5. Connection with peers and collaboration is a significant tool for learning. Encourage learning not performing.
  6. Learning through a variety of approaches fosters maths understanding. Provide rich, open ended maths problems to develop mastery.

Maths Is All Around You – Second edition is one of a number of early childhood resources, which illustrate examples of open-ended maths problems.The revised EYLF outcomes (ADGE, 2022) now include a growth mindset to encourage a positive attitude to learning.   This can be seen within Learning Outcome 4: “Children develop a growth mindset and learning dispositions such as curiosity, cooperation, confidence, creativity, commitment, enthusiasm, persistence, imagination and reflexivity” (p. 51).

Therefore, early childhood educators promote this learning for children when they include a growth mindset model in their everyday activities.

Mindset in early childhood education

In conclusion

By developing a positive attitude towards mathematics and embracing a growth mindset, early childhood educators can create a nurturing and enriching learning environment that empowers children to confidently engage with and excel in mathematics. This positive mindset about mathematics will not only benefit children in their early education years but also lay a strong foundation for their future academic and personal success.

References

Australian Government Department of Education. (2022). Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia V2.0. Australian Government Department of Education for the Ministerial Council.

Aubrey, C., Dahl, S., & Godfrey, R. (2006). Early mathematics development and later achievement: Further evidence. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 18 (1), 27–46.

Aunio, P., & Niemivirta, M. (2010). Predicting children’s mathematical performance in grade one by early mathematics. Learning and Individual Differences, 20, 427–435.

Boaler, J. (2022). Limitless mind: Learn, lead and live without barriers. HarperOne.

Dweck, C. S. (2017). The journey to children’s mindsets and beyond. Child Development Perspectives, 11(2), 139–144. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12225

Sarama, J. & Clements, D. (2009). Early childhood mathematics education research: Learning trajectories for young children. Routledge.

About the author

Marianne Knaus is an Honorary Associate Professor at Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia. She also works part time in the early childhood program at the School of Education, University of New England, Armidale.

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