The teaching of math is fascinating and complex. Math builds on itself and requires a mastery of prior material to fully understand the new material being presented. Solving difficult problems requires grit and patience. Think of it as analyzing a play in sports. As an educator, I have worked with many students and have found some common areas of struggle in math that, if addressed early, can help kids as they progress through school. Instead of focusing on the final score or the percentage correct, try to understand with your child if there is a common source of errors.
CHALLENGE: COMPUTATION ERRORS
Most kids develop number sense and the math facts through the math curriculum by 6th grade. However, there are a minority of kids who I still see computing on their fingers or struggling with a fraction in a high-school physics class, losing focus on the actual physics problem that they were trying to solve. Access to more advanced math and science classes is hindered not because of an understanding of the physical concepts, but because the students don’t have a sense of the order of magnitude to expect or spend so much time dealing with the numbers that they forget what they are solving for.
WHAT TO DO:
Spend time working on multiplication tables if they haven’t been mastered by the end of 6th grade. Once your child masters the multiplication tables, work on fractions.
CHALLENGE: COPYING MISTAKES OR NOT SHOWING WORK
These kids tend to rush through the work to try to get through it as quickly as possible. In elementary and middle school math, it can work for them. However, by the time they get to mid-high-school-level math and science classes, a point here and there adds up. Kids tell me that it doesn’t matter, they understand the concept. I partially agree – yes, understanding the concept is important, and you can demonstrate that you know it by showing your work. Walk me through your logic, especially if you dream of a career as an engineer, financier or doctor, where precision matters. I want the engineers designing the plane I’m on to be precise, and I want my anesthesiologist to be precise. Precision has to start somewhere.
WHAT TO DO:
Praise the process, not the speed. If your child is rushing to go play a game, have the next activity be something “less fun.” They won’t be in such a rush to finish math.
CHALLENGE: NOT ASKING QUESTIONS
My trickiest experiences have been with students who teachers would normally describe as the “best” students in a class. In the elementary years, they take notes, they do their homework, they study and they do well on assessments. They are well-behaved, they nod, they smile – and they generally don’t like to ask questions. All the external signs they project in the classroom exude confidence and mastery, except for not asking questions. It’s not until they reach a certain math level, usually Algebra 2, sometimes sooner, that we see the cracks. It’s like watching a duck on water, calmly gliding on the pond but furiously treading water below the surface. For some kids it comes from an internal and/or external quest for perfection, for others it’s caused by their competitive drive to not show weakness and yet for others, it’s because they compare themselves to their classmates. The causes are complex and working through this challenge is difficult. At a certain point in their education, they will need help.
WHAT TO DO:
Instead of asking your child how they did on the test, ask your child what good question they asked that day.
CHALLENGE: NOT UNDERSTANDING WHAT IS BEING ASKED
This is where reading meets math. The language in math textbooks corresponds to age-equivalent language. There is also vocabulary that is part of every field of study. We have seen a correlation between reading comprehension and the math classroom. Also, as students get older, more of the problems become word problems that require reading comprehension.
WHAT TO DO:
Read a challenging book for 30 minutes a day. If your child is a reluctant reader, explore the underlying reason why. At the end of the day, confidence in math matters. Developing the skills above will help children approach math with confidence.