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The Girls and Math Myth

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When it comes to math, there's a gender divide—but you might be surprised to learn is has more to do with anxiety than ability. If numbers are making your daughter nervous, here are some solutions to her stress.

True or false: Boys are better at math than girls? No way! There isn't any difference in math ability between genders. What boys do have the edge in: confidence. That adds up in a world where trendy retailers like Forever 21 are marketing shirts that declare “Allergic to Algebra.” “Those messages could be coming from the media, their parents, and their teachers,” says University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, Ph.D., coauthor of a study that found female first- and second-grade teachers were transferring their own math anxieties to the girls in their classes. Here's how to boost both confidence and number-crunching abilities:

Squash stereotypes

Find math and science role models: Television actress Danica McKellar (The West Wing, The Wonder Years) has a mathematics degree from UCLA and has written three books to show kids that numbers can be cool. Mayim Bialik plays a neurobiologist on The Big Bang Theory and in real life has a Ph.D. in neuroscience. And Academy Award winner Natalie Portman made it to the semifinals of the Intel Science Talent Search in high school.

Make it real

McKellar's books are all written Seventeen magazine—style, likening math problems to crushes, shopping, shoes, and lattes. “Math is a foreign language, and anything foreign can seem scary,” notes McKellar. “It's helpful to have someone translate math into something familiar.”

It's also a good idea to have kids solve everyday problems, says Kenneth Shore, Psy.D., a school and clinical psychologist in East Windsor, NJ. Let her measure the windows if she wants new bedroom curtains or calculate how many books she can buy at the book fair for $10.

Chill out

A math teacher who had the class do relaxation exercises before tests helped McKellar get over number phobia. “Performance anxiety can cause anyone's brain to freeze up,” she notes. Take a few minutes to breathe, think about a special place, or sing a fave song in your head before you start.

Take control

There's no rule that you have to do the first problem first. Teach her to read over the test, circle the easiest problems, then start with those. “She'll gain confidence as she works and the strength to tackle the harder ones,” adds McKellar.