Parents get anxious and frustrated when they see that their child does not put effort into schoolwork. Of particular frustration is the learned helplessness that children exhibit when they claim that “I’m just dumb at math (or some other subject)” and give up easily.

Attribution Theory suggests that people naturally try to explain why things happen. In the area of achievement, we look at our successes or failures as either internal (it’s all on me!) or external (teacher’s fault). In terms of the internal attribution, we either decide if our achievement is stable (I’m a natural!) or effort based (I worked hard at this!).

When children declare that a particular subject or topic is just “not my thing”, especially in the moment they see a failing grade on a quiz, literature suggests using Attributional Retraining (Robertson, 2000), where the parent or teacher should teach the child to focus on the strategies (in studying in general or in the content of the quiz) that they should implement next time, giving the message that the child can control the outcome and that his or her ability is not set in stone. Relatedly, praising the child for the parts of the test that he or she did well, and pointing out what strategies they might have used to get those points, further breaks down the idea of a global and fixed (negative) assessment.

Furthermore, it is important for parents to ask themselves how much they contribute to a child’s way of thinking about success and failure. Are we in the habit of saying “My boy is good in science, and my daughter is more of an ‘arts person’ or “Don’t ask me to calculate that, I’m just not good with numbers”. Comments like this create a mental model of fixed abilities rather than emphasizing that talents and achievements are malleable and can be developed.