Learn how to help your student who’s struggling with math in this informative webinar from Gretchen Roe.
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Hello ladies and gentlemen. My name is Gretchen Roe, and it’s my pleasure to welcome you to this presentation of the secret to why your child may struggle with math. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to share some insights with you, to talk about some learning research, and to most importantly share with you an avenue of perhaps being able to remediate your child and solve the mathematical struggles that may be occurring in your home.
The world is divided into two kinds of people. There are those of us who consider ourselves math people, and we find everything math fascinating. And then, there are those of us who do not consider ourselves math people, and we have a slightly adversarial relationship with math. I am the latter. I am not by nature a lover of mathematics. I had a very uncomfortable relationship with mathematics when I was a student myself, and I actually became a home-educating parent when my children were young, because I wanted them to have more opportunities than I had, mathematically.
So, regardless of how you identify, we’re going to talk about how those two kinds of parents instruct their student. And we’re going to talk about how you can make the instruction a successful proposition in your family, and maybe, how we can even solve some challenges that might have occurred in your family, and change the dialogue about mathematics for you and your student.
I knew enough math to pass the class, but I certainly wasn’t comfortable, and any time I encountered a mathematical experience, that anxiety about mathematics came back and sort of followed me like gum on your shoe. Unfortunately, I took that into my homeschool experiences. Perhaps you’ll recognize this scenario: Your student sits down to do something mathematically, and they say, “Can I have your help?” And you look at it and say, “Oh, man. I’m not very good in math,” or you say, “Ooh, I hate doing math,” or, “It’s time for math.” And however that manifests itself, it becomes a source of anxiety for you, and by default, it becomes a source of anxiety for your student.
Now, you may be that small contingent of parent who absolutely loves math, and you have a child in your family who doesn’t see it your way, and you’re wondering, “Why on earth, when it’s so easy, is it such a difficult lift for my child?” The truth of the matter is, it may be because you’ve said the easy word, and easy is definitely in the eyes of the beholder. What I sometimes find, when I have parents who are very adept at mathematics, they don’t have the bandwidth to see it from a perspective of a student who struggles, so that sets up another whole dynamic that needs to be addressed in families. I’m not here to diagnose the dynamics in your family. You have joined me today because something is amiss, and you would like to right it, so we’re going to talk about how we can make that happen.
Everything has to be taught, and I have been the parent who has said, “Oh, I’m not very good at math,” and I’ve said that in front of my children, and I’ve taught them that as well. Where it started for my family is, we had to start unpacking the dialog that we do in front of our children, and even the dialog that we do to ourselves, or our children do to themselves, because it’s very easy for us to go negative and speak negatively about what is occurring mathematically.
You know, when we begin with mathematics instruction, every piece of mathematics instruction has to be taught, and I want to give you a small example here. This is what many parents do, you take pennies, you take teddy bears. I’m going to give you an example with jelly beans. I say to my young student, I’m going to use my son Duncan, because he’s going to be my example throughout. When Duncan was young, if I would say, “Hey Duncan, I have three jelly beans and two jelly beans, how many jelly beans do I have all together? Let’s do addition?” And if I was fortunate, he would say, “Three, four, five. You have five jelly beans, Mom.” Or, he would say, “One, two, three, four, five,” and I would say, “Yay. You just did math.” Actually, you didn’t. No matter how fast he counted, all he did was count. And unfortunately, in many instances, that counting is where we leave kids mathematically when it comes to facts. They use their fingers, they look for divine inspiration, they use TouchPoint math, they use calculators, they use all sorts of things to get to the endgame of how much is five plus three, and it becomes difficult for them to stay engaged with a mathematical proposition when it becomes more complex.
So now, I put you in an Algebra 1 calculation that has five or six steps to it, and if I’m using my fingers, or if I’m using a number line, or if I’m using TouchPoint math, I’m burning all my mental battery energy just to get to the end of that problem. That’s why we often find that, by the time kids hit middle school, it’s just an impossible proposition for them to stay engaged with the mathematical problem.
Here’s what we want math to be like. Have you ever played a dice game? If I take those same numbers, the jelly bean numbers that I was showing you, and I roll a two and a three, now when I look at that two and that three, I don’t say, “One, two, three, four, five,” I say, “Well, that’s a five.” That’s the kind of automatic recall that facts should be for us. But so many of our kids, particularly kids who are diagnosed with a dyslexia, or a dysgraphia, or a dyscalculia, appear as they struggle more and cannot internalize those facts. Well, I can tell you, being the parent of a dyslexic, and working for the past five years with lots of families with kids who were diagnosed with a variety of learning issues that that doesn’t have to be the case, and you can provide a vehicle for your children to retain their facts and commit them to long-term memory.
Maybe in your family, it’s not just the facts, it’s kind of how you’re doing it. Here’s an example. How many of you all have thought that you would use flashcards to help your children remember their facts? Here’s an important aside for you to take away: Flashcards do not teach, flashcards only reinforce what you already know. Let me give you an example of how flashcards don’t work the way we would want them to. Let’s say I sit down with my son, Duncan, and I say, “All right, Duncan, let’s do some flashcards. Here’s two plus three,” and Duncan says, “Two plus three is five,” and I say, “All right. Good job.” And now, I hold up, “All right, Duncan, this one. Six plus seven,” and Duncan hesitates, or says, “Uh,” and I say, “Oh, come on, Duncan, you knew this yesterday.” How many of you all see yourself in that picture? Let me absolve you of guilt, because that’s a really common reaction, especially if you’re a parent, because you want your kids to be successful. The challenge is, when I waggled that card at Duncan, I just introduced stress into his life. And what we know about the biology of learning says, “As soon as stress enters the equation, learning ceases.”
There’s actually a little thing in your brain called an amygdala. The amygdala is like your brain’s conductor. It’s shuttling thoughts back and forth, and it’s taking learning from active-working memory into long-term memory. But when cortisol is released, which is the stress hormone, when Duncan becomes anxious about me sounding a little frustrated for waving a card at him, then learning shuts down. What happens is, that amygdala squeezes down, and until it relaxes, learning cannot occur. So, as the parent, you may be inadvertently introducing stress to their lives without even realizing it. And trust me, I am the poster-bearing, T-shirt-wearing parent for the wrong way to do flashcards. If I have a child that I know knows those numbers, then flashcards are maybe not a bad proposition, but I also am the person everybody wants to play poker with, because you can see exactly how I feel about the game, because it’s written all over my face. That’s when I don’t want to be sitting across the table from Duncan, because I don’t him to see if I’m disappointed. So, if I had to use flashcards with him, I’d want to sit down with him sitting next to me so he can’t see my reactions to his answer. That’s just a small aside.
So, here’s what we often see when we work with students who are struggling. The common cause of mathematical struggles as the mathematics becomes more complex, is that the student is using too much mental energy to do the simple computations connected with their mathematical problem. What if there were a way for you to fill your student’s gaps? A way for you to go back to where their foundation was shaky, and re-pour that concrete and make that foundation solid. Regardless of whether you have a student in public school, private school, homeschool, virtual school, any student at any point in time can become mathematically anxiety-ridden because they’re struggling. So, we need to give them as much latitude as possible to make the recall as simple as possible, just like it was when I held up two dice and said, “That’s the number five.” In order to do that, we have to figure out where the gaps are. Filling in those gaps is easy when we know what they look like. I have a variety of diagnostic tools available to me, and I’m happy to be able to use those diagnostics in conjunction with each individual family, and give a student success.
Over the past five years, I’ve worked with hundreds of families. I’ve worked with families who have children who have diagnoses of mathematical disability, I’ve worked with families of children who have 504 plans, and IEPs. Children who have been told my professionals they could not retain facts, “So, here is a number line, here is a multiplication chart, here is a calculator. Go forward, young man, into that future with those tools.” The challenge becomes, how much mental engagement does that student need to stay engaged with a mathematical problem?
Here’s the other thing that learning theory tells us: Students have between two to four minutes, plus their age, to stay engaged in any kind of learning endeavor before they need a small mental break. So, a 10-year-old student, on a good day, when he doesn’t have to go to the bathroom and he’s not hungry, has 15 minutes of attention to give to a mathematical endeavor before he needs a mental break. When I first looked at some of the math programs that I now use successfully, I thought, “Well, that’s not enough math.” And how often do we actually do that when we are taking our adult suppositions and putting it on a child and expecting them to react and remain engaged in the same way that we would as an adult? That’s just not fair.
So instead, what’s easier for us to do is to figure out where the gaps are, figure out what we need to close those gaps, and then, most of all, change the internal dialog that the student has with themself about mathematics. Sometimes, that’s really easy, because the student begins to see immediate success once we’ve been able to teach them our proven methods. Sometimes, it’s a little bit harder, and you as the parents have to put yourself in the advocate’s role of giving your child permission to say, “This is what works for me, and this is how I learn best.” Being able to evaluate that is tremendously empowering for a student of any age, and knowing how you learn best means you can take that success and parlay it into another success and another success academically.
How do I know that this works? Well, having the privilege to work with hundreds of families in the last five years at Demme Learning, I can tell you that I hear the stories over and over and over again of how families were able to diagnose where their children’s gaps were, and then fill those gaps successfully. But I also have a really personal story. I mentioned my son Duncan at the beginning of my presentation. Duncan is now 19 years old. He’s a sophomore in college. He’s enjoyed three semesters on the dean’s list, and I fully expect him to finish this four semester of college on the dean’s list as well. Duncan is a diagnosed dyslexic. He didn’t learn to read until he was more than nine years old. I thought if I was going to teach him to read, I probably should farm out mathematics to someone else, so he did a homeschool mathematics co-op until he finished ninth grade. The interesting thing was, he got good grades in the co-op. He got As and Bs, but he had a lot of support, and he did not have that confident knowledge of, “Here’s a math problem, cold solve it, Duncan. That was what was lacking for him. I knew that Math-U-See and Math-U-See’s methodologies would give him a superior academic experience.
And so, at the end of his ninth-grade year, we returned to Math-U-See. We had to do a lot of diagnostics, we had to figure out where his gaps were, and then, we had to fill those gaps. In the process of filling those gaps, I’ll tell you, it was hard work. It was six months of really hard work before he began his sophomore year of high school. He began his sophomore year in a public school, because he had a desire to swim competitively. And because of that, he really had to be ready. As a sophomore in high school, he did Algebra 1. As a junior in high school, he did Algebra 2 and geometry. As a senior, he did precalculus, and then, he tested successfully into college algebra, and of course, is in a very math-intensive major. He’s a Computer Science major. He has done college algebra, two semesters of college calculus, and now, he’s taking linear algebra. He’s been successful in all those endeavors.
Does that mean he’s not dyslexic anymore? No, not at all. Dyslexia will follow him throughout his life. What he did learn in the process of filling in those gaps and meeting those mathematical milestones in a different capacity was a way to self-advocate, a way that he learns best, a way that he can apply himself, not only mathematically, but to his other studies and endeavors. The most important thing is, he was able to change that internal dialog that said, “I can’t,” to, “I can, and I will.” That’s probably one of the best gifts that we can give our children, is the ability to change that internal dialog and be successful.
At Math-U-See, we strive to help families individually, and the interesting thing is, so often, we hear from parents who say, “You know? I had no mathematical skillset, but not only did Math-U-See help me teach my children, it gave me a confidence as well.” I am that parent. I knew I was weak mathematically, and that was part of the reason I wanted to homeschool my children, but I wasn’t sure what that would be in the endgame, because it was such a difficult proposition for me to learn mathematically. I thought that it meant, if you were adept at math, maybe there were other things you were less adept at, and if you weren’t adept at math, maybe there were other things you were more adept at. What I have learned is, building that solid foundation makes all the difference in the world.