George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

A Framework for Boosting High School Students’ Math Confidence

Activities designed to help students believe in themselves may improve their math skills.

December 7, 2021
High school math teacher helps students during class
PhotoAlto / Alamy Stock Photo

As a math teacher, I like starting class with questions. So here are some questions for you: How many of you feel frustrated teaching math in your high school classes? How many of you find deep gaps in the conceptual understanding of your students? How many of you are able to do something about it? I would like to introduce you to my SAFE framework, which is designed to build self-esteem and confidence in students to facilitate their success in math.

I remember my first year teaching. One of my key roles as a substitute for a math specialist was to work with some of the struggling students in a small group and engage with them to meet their math goals. The students displayed a lack of interest in math and low confidence in their ability to problem-solve.

I observed a disruptive student in algebra class who was very quiet in my small group. He would look at the different 3D shape manipulatives in my room whenever we were together. One day, I deviated from the usual plan for my students to solve equations and asked the boy if he would like to help me explain the 3D shapes and their dimensions. He started showing some interest and taught a couple of peers how to construct a 3D form from its 2D nets.

At the end of the class, he felt accomplished and more confident. My student opened to other things we learned in the small group afterward. His story changed the way I believe students learn in a math classroom. My focus changed to building self-esteem and confidence to enable students to learn math. I use the SAFE framework not only to help students believe in themselves but to gain their trust.

A SAFE Pathway to Learning Math

Self-Reflection: Practices that are self-reflective help students know where they are and where they want to be. I use a feelings poster for my students to reflect on their feelings and develop self-awareness. Using a checklist, they reflect on their goals with clear expectations and learning outcomes to visualize the path to success. My students use a learning meter to rate their prior knowledge from 0% to 100%. They use the meter again at the end of the lesson to gauge their mastery of a concept.

Affirmation: Starting the class with a reflection on something positive can encourage students to open up. I start the lesson with how my weekend was—if I cooked dinner with my family, went to see a new movie, or took my golden retriever out for a jog.

Beginning the class with this fosters positivity. I hear my students say, “I cannot do this problem” and then, with some scaffolding, change to “I can do this now.” Using “heartful” affirmations with statements that begin with I am develops and builds my students’ confidence. These statements help in reminding them to self-affirm.

Failing Forward: Making mistakes is always a welcome sign of learning in my class. Knowing that failures can be a stepping-stone for success and growth builds self-esteem in students. According to Martin Covington, a professor at UC Berkeley, the fear of failure is directly linked to your self-worth, or the belief that you are valuable as a person.

In my class, students are open to making mistakes without any judgment. They encourage each other to learn from the mistakes and develop the confidence to try new learning paths. Using statements that change students’ current mindsets from can’t to can is essential for learning. Students with a fixed mindset tend to give up easily, while students with a growth mindset are persistent problem solvers.

So how do we develop a growth mindset in our students? When you believe in your students, they believe in themselves. I use posters on growth mindset in math in my classroom to create my Intention Wall, which helps my students keep working whenever they are struggling.

Enliven: Inspire every student by celebrating even small successes. Praising the students for their efforts can go a long way in building their confidence. As educators, we focus on goals, high expectations, and learning outcomes most of the time. I like to celebrate even small accomplishments in my class and make it a big deal for my students.

Calling a parent or emailing them to share something positive about the student can strengthen your relationships. I applaud my students in the class and write a small note to congratulate them for their every small effort. We also build a good rapport in class through this acknowledgment, and students start to be open to learning more. Enliven your math classroom by connecting math to real-life scenarios, engaging with your students, and encouraging productive struggles.

Building self-esteem and confidence in our students impacts how they learn math. Self-belief unleashes the students’ potential to be creative and reach higher goals. Using SAFE can build the mathematical confidence that reflects a growth mindset and a positive attitude, shifting students from I cannot do math to affirming that they can.

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  • Math
  • 9-12 High School

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