Building Motivation in Math 

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I’m sure you have all heard a child say it before, the all-encompassing “I HATE MATH”. And now that Common Core has stepped into play, I know many teachers and parents are saying it too.

According to, compared to other countries, the Untied States fail in math and science. The US placed 27th out of 34 countries in math performance based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The real question is, what causes a student to hate math? Patrick Welsh of USA Today quotes, “I worry that we’re pushing many kids to grasp math at higher levels before they are ready. When they struggle, they begin to dread math, and eventually we lose thousands of students who could be the scientists and engineers of tomorrow. If we held back and took more time to ground them in the basics, we could turn them on to math.”

So now we are posed with the following question, how can we turn a child on to math?

It begins with building motivation. There are 2 types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic. What’s the big difference? Extrinsic motivation occurs when we are motivated to perform a behavior or engage in an activity to earn a reward, while intrinsic motivation involves engaging in behavior because it is personally rewarding. Is one better than the other when it comes to motivating a child to enjoy math; the answer is no. Any motivation is good motivation.

Children can easily build a love for math and they do so by knowing the people closest to them love math too. That means parents, teachers, mentors, etc. Even if math was your worst subject in high school and you do absolutely hate it, tell children you enjoy it. Are you lying? Yes, you are, but what do you think most teachers do? A person is not designed to love everything, but there is nothing wrong with having a child believe in the idea of ‘this could be fun.’

Here are a few ways fun ways to build math motivation…

  1. Connect to the real world

Did you know that the McDonald’s sign is made up of 2 arcs? How about when the clock reads 3:00 that makes a right angle? Children love making connections to their real lives and this makes math that much more relatable. Let your student look for different quadrilaterals around the room. Have your children look for lose change around the house, and let them count it to put in their piggy banks. We use math EVERYDAY in our adult lives so children need to start building the connection on how we truly use it.

2. Make it interactive

It’s the year 2016 and if you’re not using technology in your classroom, well you should be. There are a myriad of interactive websites for teachers to use in math. But if you’re simply using a website that shows equations all day, be prepared for the children to get bored. Step outside your comfort zone, and start using games that allow children to explore the world of math. The best moment is when a child doesn’t even realize that they are actually learning.

 3. Tell a story

As a former teacher of 8 years, all I did was tell stories to hook my students into the upcoming math lesson. And they LOVED my stories. Whether it was the tale of me buying a shirt at the store and getting the wrong change back or when I would run on the treadmill and knew when there was 5 minutes left out of my 20 minute sprint, I’d get excited because I only had 1/4 left to complete! And as you tell your stories (whether true or false), the children want to tell their stories too. Now they are thinking about math; when their parent goes to pay at the store, or when they are trying to figure out how much time is left in their history class. Doesn’t matter the time or place, children feel confident when they apply something that they learned.

4. Movement

Why use brain breaks, when you can move in math! Ever heard of “Freeze Dance”? Well try freeze dance using the four operations. Play the music, pause it, and ask your students a quick multiplication fact. They love it! Why draw angles on the paper when you can make them with your arms! Go on a shape scavenger hunt around your house! The possibilities are endless. Don’t subject children to sitting all day long. Bring a little movement into math, and their smiles are sure to grow.

5. Bribery

Now I’m not saying we should be bribing children to love math, but a little extrinsic motivation never hurt anyone. Want to make kids love fractions, how about a pizza party! If your teaching your child how to count to ten, give them 10 stickers. You really want your students to understand rounding, dye your hair pink if everyone get’s the question of the day correct! The reward is always up to you, but remember to a child, sometimes the littlest reward can go the longest way.

We need to step outside of our skill and drill boxes and those “I hate math” mindsets, and learn that math IS fun.

So teachers and parents, how do you motivate your children to enjoy math?


Lauren McCrone has worked as an educator for over eight years with specialties in technology integration, math curriculum and assessment. As International Curriculum Specialist at Matific, Lauren promotes the innovation and evolution of mathematics education.