Just as your body is built from the foods you eat, your mind is built from the experiences you have. As you have more and more experiences, those experiences slowly shape how your brain works and how you think and act.
But the problem is that to protect us, our brains naturally pay more attention to unpleasant experiences. So, the pile of negative memories grows faster.
This pile of negative memories can lead to issues like math anxiety, which has been suggested to decrease students’ math performance.
It’s likely that a child who experiences math anxiety has strong memories of when doing math meant failing, making their caregivers upset, or feeling embarrassed in front of their peers.
Without the student realizing what’s happening, a math assignment can trigger those memories and cause them to go into fight, flight, or freeze response.
When students are in that state of mind, it’s tough to learn, let alone perform their best on a quiz or a test.
The tendency our brains have to pay more attention to negative stimuli and build up these negative memories is known as the negativity bias.
It doesn’t help that most of the time when we’re focused on school, we’re focused on what we need to get better at, not what we’re already good at—a certain kind of negativity bias in and of itself.
We can’t rid ourselves or our children of the negativity bias. It’s a natural part of a healthy human brain that is there to help keep us alive.
But both neuroscience and social research show us that we don’t have to exist at the whim of this part of our brains. Here’s how you can help your kiddo stop negativity bias from standing in their way to success.
Cherish Positive Experiences
Memories can be beneficial or harmful. To be happy and calm, we can create, preserve, and increase positive memories that benefit us and others. We can also prevent, eliminate, or decrease negative memories that harm.
How do we do that when our brain is always on the lookout for things that might be negative? Purposefully cherish positive experiences.
We can transform our negative memories into positive ones by thinking of a stressful memory we have about math, holding it in our mind, and then remembering something soothing or calming at the same time.
Bring into your mind a memory of a time when math was stressful. Try to remember everything about that time: what you were doing, who was there, what you saw, heard, smelled, felt.
Now, bring into your mind a time when you felt very safe, taken care of, and loved. Try to remember everything about that time as well: what you were doing, who was there, what you saw, heard, smelled, felt.
Does that feel better?
We do this exercise with our students, and I highly recommend trying it with your child. The more they do it, the more they’ll physically be joining safe feelings with negative memories, and the less harmful effects those memories will have.
Create New Positive Memories
The other thing kids can do to combat a negative bias toward schoolwork is create new, positive memories about that work.
For example, to help my students with math anxiety start creating positive memories about math, I have them watch this video of Arthur Benjamin, the mathemagician.
I tell them, in the video, they’ll see a man do some wild things with math for a show. I assure them I do not expect them to do what he does. So, they don’t need to worry about learning anything from the video.
Instead, I tell them to focus as much as they can on anything in the video they see that is positive, fun, funny, or interesting. I ask them to pay attention to when people in the video are smiling and laughing. I prompt them to notice what people seem to be enjoying. And at the end, I ask what they enjoyed.
Simply having this experience of enjoying a video about math puts the student in a positive headspace, creating a new positive memory about the subject.
Then it’s a matter of continuing to build positive memories as we work together from there.
Identify and Focus on Strengths
Research shows that when people focus on their natural talents instead of their weaknesses, they are more engaged at school and work, more productive, happier, and healthier.
Data and analytics from Gallup show that student engagement, wellbeing, and hope for the future make up one-third of the variance in students’ academic success.
Furthermore, engagement and hope are linked to achievement, grades, absenteeism, and plans after high school.
Compared with their actively disengaged peers, engaged students are 2.5 times more likely to say that they get excellent grades and do well in school, and they are 4.5 times more likely to be hopeful about the future.
All School Without Suffering students learn basic neuroscience showing how our attention impacts our experience. So, they know that if they want a more engaged, more productive, happier, healthier experience with school, they’ve got to put their attention on their strengths,
On the first day we meet with a new student, we ask them not only what challenges they’d like our help with, but we also ask about what they are good at.
And when we evaluate students, we assess both their strengths and weaknesses, and we make sure they understand that they have both and that focusing on both areas is equally important.
We also allow all of our students to take the Gallup strengths assessment to get objective data about their natural talents.
We help them reflect on all of this data and identify where in their lives they are already using what they are good at to accomplish what they want to achieve.
And throughout the time we are working with them, we help them use their strengths in new ways to help them learn to overcome challenges as they learn new skills and find ways to improve their weaker areas.
Because at School Without Suffering, we refuse to let negativity bias get in the way of any child’s success.
Founder & Principal Academic Coach
Laura Fragomeni, Ed.M.
Laura Fragomeni is a Harvard-educated master academic coach and the founder of School Without Suffering, an academic coaching practice specializing in helping struggling students around the world be happy and successful.