Dear Dr. Sylvia

Girls Who Underachieve in Math

November, 2014



I see girls underachieve in the sciences and mathematics. How can parents and teachers both prevent and reverse this trend? I see a huge change in the girls I taught in fifth grade. They lose their excitement for math when they get to eighth grade. I would like to help middle school parents and teachers address this issue.




Girls who excelled in math in earlier grades and then turn off to math or science by later middle school are often responding to peer pressure and/or their own perfectionism. During elementary grades, smart girls often identify with their female teachers and want very much to please them and be like them. Many girls learn excellent habits of achievement. They not only learn basic skills well, but they also get in the habit of earning perfect grades. Children’s motivation to please their parents and teachers is developmentally healthy and is very effective for their learning good study habits.

By the middle grades, popularity with peers gradually becomes a somewhat stronger motivator and competes with pleasing parents. In my research for my book Growing Up Too Fast (Rodale, 2005), I found that by third grade, 15 percent of the girls were already “worried a lot” about being popular with boys. That percentage increased yearly thereafter.

The leadership among peers as to valuing or not valuing good grades makes a difference in whether girls are motivated to achieve. During my focus groups with middle-grade students, many girls told me that they feared getting all A’s or being excellent students because it could cause popular kids to reject them or even to take their friends away. That in itself could discourage girls from loving math and science, subjects often considered the province of boys and nerds.

Perfectionism also plays an important role. For girls who have established themselves as perfect, all-A students, math and science often become their first real challenges by the time they reach the middle grades. Accustomed to learning easily and doing well, getting their first B or C grades can discourage these girls and cause them to believe that they aren’t good at these subjects. The girls often give up easily and do the minimum to get by, only much later discovering that math is a threshold subject for many careers that might otherwise interest them. These girls are stopped at the door by fearing that they lack the ability to do math, and their lack of confidence prevents them from attempting higher math.

Although more girls are doing well in math than ever before, teaching girls resilience in the face of challenge continues to be an important mission. Parents and teachers can do many things to help girls. These recommendations, which will also help boys, include:

1.    Emphasize that, while math and science are challenging subjects, they’re worth the hard work because they become more and more interesting as students learn to understand them. If you say they’re easy, kids give up easily because they fear that not understanding math immediately means that they’re not smart enough.

2.    Praise children moderately. You can call them smart, but avoid calling them brilliant, genius, perfect, or smartest. Superlatives can be motivating but can also cause difficult pressures. Instead, praise them for working hard, persevering, and thinking things out slowly and carefully.

3.    Teach children how to break difficult assignments down into smaller parts and then learn them a little at a time. They will thus develop the ability to handle challenges without becoming overwhelmed.

4.    Encourage students to ask for help if their first attempts fail. Even very smart kids may need help. Many students who receive ‘A’s’ in difficult college subjects have only done so with the help of tutors. The “A” stands for their excellence, and it doesn’t matter if they needed some help along the way as long as they’ve learned.

5.     Explain that self-confidence grows from taking on challenges. They build confidence when they see a difficult problem, worry a little that they won’t be able to do it, try really hard to figure it out, and find success after struggle. If you steal children’s struggle, you steal their self-confidence.


Dr Sylvia RimmDr. Sylvia Rimm is a child psychologist and clinical professor at Case University School of Medicine, author, newspaper and magazine columnist, and radio/TV personality. For free newsletters about "See Jane Win: the Rimm Report on How 1000 Girls Became Successful Women" (Crown Publishers, 1999)  and/or "See Jane Win for Girls" (Free Spirit Publishing, 2003), send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for each newsletter to P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI, 53094. Read Dr. Rimm’s articles on this topic and submit family questions online at All questions are answered.

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