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Many educators are interested in increasing students’ social–cognitive attitudes and beliefs about learning. It is well established that self-concepts play a role in children’s academic motivation, choices, and achievement (Ertl, Luttenberger, & Paechter, 2017). The current intervention study was conducted in Spain, where schools are interested in interventions to help children form more positive beliefs about themselves and math. Effective interventions with Spanish students have potential to provide actionable practices for Hispanic students around the world (USA included).
A new wave of field experiments has examined whether interventions targeting students’ beliefs about academic disciplines—rather than solely teaching them academic content—can make significant differences in learning outcomes (Yeager & Walton, 2011). The current study provides the first empirical evidence for the effectiveness of interventions to strengthen students’ math self-concepts in early elementary school, with measures of academic performance as outcome measures.
180 3rd-grade students in Madrid (Mage = 8.79 years; 96 girls) completed a pre-test before the interventions to evaluate their preexisting math self-concepts. Both explicit and implicit measures were employed. For the explicit measure, a standard test was used: Children were shown pictures of child characters, and were asked self-report questions about “who does math”. For the implicit measure, the Child Implicit Association Test (Child IAT) was used which is an adaptation of the adult tests that evaluate social biases using nonverbal methods (Author, 2011). The underlying principle of the ChIAT is that both adults and children find certain associations to be more natural or “congruent,” and they respond to them with more facility. If children associate themselves with math, they will respond more quickly to me = math than to other control pairings.
Following the pre-test, the children in the treatment (“math”) condition completed four tasks: (a) activation of positive stereotypes about social groups to which they belong, (b) self-affirmation, (c) “approaching” math, and (d) using sounds to strengthen me = math linkages. All of these interventions have been shown to be effective in adults, but we here adapted them for use with children and math. Following this, all children completed the post-test, which included the same explicit and implicit measures to evaluate pre-post change. The “controls” participated in the same four intervention tasks, but involving either (a) reading instead of math (“reading-intervention” group) or no intervention activities at all (“no-intervention” group).
Results showed children’s math self-concepts in the treatment (math) intervention condition significantly improved in the desired me = math direction on both explicit (all ps < .05) and implicit measures (all ps < .05). This was not true in the control group (all ps >.53). Posttest implicit math self-concepts in the treatment group also were predictive of year-end math achievement (p = .004).
The efficacy of the different treatments and differences between the malleability of implicit versus explicit social self-representations about math will be discussed. The findings will also be interpreted in terms of the potential practical implications for educational science, especially for programs aimed at promoting equity in math participation.