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The Secret to Why Your Student Struggles in Math

Why do some people struggle with math? We'll look at our relationship with math and the dialogue we use to look for an answer.

There are two kinds of people:

1) People who are fascinated by math.
2) People who have an adversarial relationship with math.

I’m one of the latter. I knew enough math to pass classes, but I certainly wasn’t comfortable. Anytime I encountered math, my math anxiety came back and followed me like my shadow.

Unfortunately, I took that anxiety into my experience as a homeschooling parent. Perhaps you’ll recognize this scenario: Your student sits down to do something with math. “Can you help me?” they say. You respond with one of the following phrases:

“Oh, man…I’m not very good at math.”
“I hate doing math.”
“Oh no, not math time again.”
“Let’s wait until your dad gets home.”

It becomes a source of anxiety for you, and by default, it becomes a source of anxiety for your student.

Do You Love Math?

Maybe you’re the opposite. Do you love math? Do you have a child who doesn’t see math the same way you do?

You may be wondering why math is so difficult for your student when math is so easy for you. “Easy” is in the eyes of the beholder. I have frequently found that parents who are skilled at mathematics have a hard time seeing it from the perspective of a student who struggles with math. They “see” mathematics and don’t comprehend why their child doesn’t.

Cue anxiety.

Math Dialogue

Everything has to be taught, and it’s time to start unpacking the dialogue that we use in front of our children, the dialogue that we speak to ourselves, and the dialogue that our children use for themselves. It’s very easy to speak about math negatively.

When we begin teaching math, every piece of instruction has to be taught. Most parents take pennies, teddy bears, or jelly beans to teach addition. When my son Duncan was young, if I would say, “I have three jelly beans and two jelly beans. How many jelly beans do I have all together?”

If I was fortunate, he would say, “Three…four…five. You have five jelly beans.”

“Yay! You just did math!”, I would say.

But he didn’t do math. You see, no matter how fast he counted, all he did was count.

In many instances, that counting is where we leave kids when it comes to facts. They use their fingers, they look for divine inspiration, they use calculators; they use all sorts of things to get to the answer. What’s the problem? As math becomes more complex, it is ever harder for them to stay engaged to the problem’s conclusion.

If I put my student with that level of proficiency in an Algebra 1 problem that has five or six steps in it, and he struggles for simple fact recall, he’s burning all of his mental energy just to get to the end of the problem. Math becomes a struggle.

That’s why we often find that, by the time kids hit middle school, it’s nearly impossible for them to stay engaged with math. In fact, right about the time long division shows up, problems begin – because you have to be able to add, subtract, multiply, AND divide to do a long division problem.

What Should Math Look Like?

Here’s what we want math to look like. Have you ever played a dice game? If I take those same numbers from the jelly bean example, and I roll a two and a three, now when I look at them, I don’t say, “One…two…three…four…five.” I say: “Well, that’s a five.” That’s the kind of automatic recall that math facts should be for us.

So many of our kids, particularly kids who are diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia, struggle more and seem to not be able to memorize those facts.

Being the parent of a child with dyslexia and working for several years with lots of families with kids who were diagnosed with learning issues, I can share that this doesn’t have to be the case. 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 how you’re doing it, and not just the facts. Have you ever thought that you would use flashcards to help your children remember their facts? Flashcards don’t teach; they reinforce what you already know. Let’s say I sit down with Duncan and in the process of doing flash cards, I say something like, “Oh, come on, Duncan. You knew this yesterday.” This is a common reaction, especially if you’re a parent, because you want your kids to be successful. The challenge is that I just introduced stress into Duncan’s life. When stress enters the equation, learning ceases.

The amygdala in your brain shuttles thoughts back and forth, and it takes learning from active-working memory into long-term memory. When cortisol (the “stress hormone”) is released, learning shuts down. You may be accidentally introducing stress into your student’s lives without even realizing it.

The most common cause of a student struggling with math is using too much mental energy to finish the problem. And that goes all the way back to the jelly beans. If we don’t learn to transition from counting to adding, AND then commit those facts to memory, it stresses the system. The further we go mathematically, the more difficult it is for the student to stay engaged.

We fail to recognize how critical it is to commit math facts to memory. And the really crazy part is that sometimes we conclude we have a disability with math, when the bottom line problem is all the way back at the bears and the beans!

Filling Math Gaps

What if there was 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 the concrete and make that foundation solid? Any student (public, private, home, etc.) can become anxiety-ridden because they struggle with math. We need to make the recall as simple as possible. In order to do that, we have to figure out where the gaps are. Filling in those gaps is easy when you know what they look like.

The challenge becomes, how much mental energy does that student need to stay engaged with a mathematical problem? Learning theorists say students have attentions spans that are their age, plus 2-4 minutes. What does that mean? A 10-year-old student has 13-15 minutes of attention to devote to learning math on a good day, before they have exhausted their capacity.

When I first looked at some of the math programs that I have used over the years, I thought, “That’s not enough math!” Well, how much is “enough”? When we take the adult capacity for remaining engaged in a task and put it on a child, I think we ask too much. That’s not fair for the child.

How do we solve the mathematical dilemma? We need to figure out where the gaps are, evaluate what we need to do to close those gaps, and change the student’s internal dialogue about themselves and math. Sometimes that can be easy when the student sees immediate success. Sometimes it’s harder, and you have to put yourself in the advocate’s role of giving your student permission to say, “This is what works for me, and this is how I learn best.” Being able to evaluate how you learn best is empowering for a student of any age, and means that you can take that success and turn it into other successes.

Let me tell you my personal story of seeing self-advocacy in action. My son, Duncan, is at the time of this writing, 20 years old. He 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 — As and Bs, but he had a lot of support, and he did not have mathematical confidence.

At the end of his ninth-grade year, Duncan expressed a desire to go to public high school (to swim competitively). I knew he had mathematical gaps, and a confidence issue. Using Math-U-See diagnostics, we determined where his gaps were, and then, we had to fill those gaps. I’ll tell you, it was six months of hard work before he began his sophomore year of high school. He had to go through four levels of Math-U-See to fill in the gaps he had – but this was possible because he was not learning concepts for the first time, but rather, learning them conceptually and thoroughly.

As a sophomore in high school, he did Algebra 1. As a junior in high school, he did Algebra 2 and Geometry, all the while using Math-U-See to supplement his understanding. As a senior, he did PreCalculus and then tested successfully into college algebra. At 20, he holds an associate’s degree in Computer Science and works as a junior systems engineer.

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 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 dialogue that said, “I can’t,” to, “I can, and I will.”

One of the best gifts that we can give our children, is the ability to change that internal dialogue and be successful.

At Math-U-See, we strive to help families individually. We often hear from parents that they gained a lot of mathematical confidence themselves from teaching math to their children through Math-U-See.

I am that parent. I knew I was weak mathematically, and that was part of the reason I wanted to homeschool my children. Math-U-See made it possible for me to give my children the mathematical success I lacked. It also taught me the importance of mathematical self-advocacy.

What I have learned is that building that solid foundation makes all the difference in the world. Do you have a struggling math student? Do you think that perhaps they have a mathematical disability? What if that deficit is simply they have a sand foundation instead of a concrete one? You CAN change how they feel about math and their mathematical prospects. It starts with diagnosing their weaknesses, and then changing them into strengths. Contact us and let us help you change your mathematical story.

How Can I Help You?

Thank you so much for reading my blog post! I hope it was valuable to you.

If you would like personalized assistance, please feel free to schedule an appointment.

Why do some people struggle with math? We'll look at our relationship with math and the dialogue we use to look for an answer.

About Gretchen Roe

Gretchen Roe educated her children at home for 21 years. With a degree in child development, she laughingly says it was not necessarily helpful for raising her own six children. She owned her own business for 15 years, as well as being involved in several nonprofit boards. She has spent the last 10 years in positions of homeschool advocacy and comes to Demme Learning as a Placement Specialist. She loves the outdoors, all things furry, and is in the process of learning farming and beekeeping skills.

11 thoughts on “The Secret to Why Your Student Struggles in Math

  1. Scott Chance

    I hate math too! I can identify with the students you wrote about. Most of this article resembles my personal struggle with math. In 2017, at 45 years of age, I began my journey to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering. I had to take Algebra 101 & Precalculus twice each. I hate math, although I can do math; I have trouble retaining that which is taught & in college, the pace is much faster than I can actually learn it. When I took Algebra 101 the first time, I was enrolled fulltime, and did not have the time I needed to devote to math when I struggled & netted a C-. The following semester I took precalculus and was so far behind, I had to withdraw from the course. My teacher strongly suggested I take Algebra 101 again. The following semester, I dropped down to part-time (2 classes instead of 4) and earned an A the second time! I know there is still a long road ahead for me, but I intend to look into Math-U-See. Hopefully it will even help an older student. At my current, slower pace, I expect to graduate in 2023. I know that all engineering degrees require lots & lots of math; this article has given me a little more hope while facing the mountain ahead. Thanks for writing it!

  2. Gretchen Roe

    Scott — congratulations on your perseverance. That is a life skill that is so often undervalued! You are going to be a fantastic civil engineer. I often have conversations with adults whose anxiety regarding mathematics has prevented them from doing what they really wanted to do. I have learned, both personally and professionally that attitude is everything, and sometimes taking two steps backward (into filling those mathematical gaps) is the difference between failure and success. I wish you well, and should you desire direct assistance, please do not hesitate to be in touch! YOu may email me directly at groe@demmelearning.com.

    1. Don Aldrich

      To Scott and all the other “Scotts” out there. I echo and confirm Gretchen’s response to you. You have now learned, or at least are on your way to understand well what works best for you to learn a new subject. That wisdom and encouragement you get from it will equip you to be a very successful engineer. Keep up the good work and keep on learning!! I know because I am a PhD Chemical Engineer (WPI and MIT) and had a great 30 year career in technical and managerial positions with DuPont. I am now retired from that career, and just recently was called to teach Algebra II at Anchor Christian Academy in Lancaster, PA. We are using Math-U-See; I think it is an excellent approach to teaching students, both those who are fascinated by math and those who have an adversarial relationship with math. This curriculum really works well!!

  3. Deb

    I enjoy using math u see, but would benefit if there were additional story problems available for practice. I am currently teaching alpha, gamma, and epsilon. Any suggestions?

    1. Gretchen Roe

      Deb, I am going to share a trick with you that I use for story problems. I will give you a story probIem tip, but first, let’s talk briefly about how to address ANY Story problem: (1) READ THE WHOLE PROBLEM. The greatest number of errors occur when a student assumes they know what the problem is asking for. (2) Read it again, out loud, and then ask yourself “what is unnecessary”? Cross it out. Circle the numbers. Draw a box around the operations indicated. Then, solve. Making up story problems does not have to be difficult. Let me give you an example. I am pulling an example from Epsilon. This is the problem as it is written: Joan picked 2/3 of a bushel of tomatoes and gave 3/5 of what she picked to her neighbor. What part of a whole bushel did she receive? Now create “another problem” – by changing some details – like this: Ken bought 2/3 of a peck of apples at a local farm. He gave 3/5 of that peck to his mom. What part of the peck did Ken’s mom receive? Same numbers — different words. New story problem. (and because the numbers are the same, you did not have to solve it — you HAVE the solution). Have fun and be creative.

  4. Annette Dryden

    This article was so helpful for me! I am a homeschooling mama of three children. My oldest two have been in the “adversarial relationship with math” category. I was always good at math, but have discovered that I am not very good at explaining it. My oldest has taken off with Math-U-See in the last few years! My middle child is still struggling a lot. I never thought that one day math would so often be on my mind and in my bedtime prayers! I can see how math anxiety is definitely an issue for my daughter, and I would love to help her feel like she CAN do it! On a good day when she is calm, she can manipulate numbers and move them around in creative ways to solve problems!! I know there are gaps, but I know she is a smart cookie and can do this! Your article gives me hope, and I needed that in this season. Thank you!

    1. Gretchen Roe

      Annette — we often discount the root of mathematical anxiety and neglect to realize it may be something as simple as not having our computational facts committed to memory. The realization of how often this occurs is the genesis of Math U See’s new intervention program AIM for Addition and Subtraction. I would be happy to help you determine what your daughter’s gaps are and help you fill them. You are welcome to give me a call at 717.524.5692.


    I love this article!! Right on time with what i needed to hear. I have a 13 yr old son whom I’ve home-schooled since 5th grade. We have tried numerous math curriculum and still have not found our fit. I’m sure there are gaps because of this. He’s in the 8th grade now and is wanting to go back to public school in the fall for his high school years for athletic reasons. Boy, am I one worried mama! Worried that he may be behind in math. So I do my research and realize the spiral approach math that he is doing now, just isn’t working for him. It’s hard for him to retain it. So i decided to check into a mastery approach and bit the bullet and purchase, yet another math curriculum mid year! We will receive Math U See algebra 1 this Thursday and will work through it, as much as possible, before he starts public school in the fall. Other post that I’ve read, stated it probably wasn’t wise to start this curriculum so late in the game but this post game me hope. Thank you.

    1. Gretchen Roe

      Tamara, believe it or not, five years ago, that would have been the exact story with my now 20 year old! It is never too late for Math U See and we are adept at filling in research. I am happy to help you be successful. It may be that Algebra 1 is not the culprit, and there are underlying weaknesses that need shoring up. Nothing is a deal-breaker. My 5th child filled his gaps, started public school as a sophomore and finished his high school academics with PreCalc. He now has an AA in Computer Sciences. It IS possible! Feel free to give me a call at 717.524.5692 and let me help you attain that goal.

  6. Rebekka Liebenberg

    I had both the 1st and 2nd kind of personal relationship with Maths at school! I eventually quit maths and took typing instead – it closed many doors for me in my life. My first love has always been medicine, and I would have loved to study something that would be helpful to others – like keeping them healthy or saving lives. Instead I studied law and art and languages and always felt like I’d missed out simply because I was not Mathematical enough. When it came time for my children to do maths, I noticed that my eldest was an absolute NATURAL!! So you can imagine my shock when the school told me she needed extra lessons and would always struggle with maths! When I took my kids out of school and started homeschooling I did a LOT of research and decided to use the Math-U-See system because it made the best sense to me. As a result, my daughter flourished, did very well with maths and finished her A levels and went on to study Mechanical engineering. To my mind, this proves that all people are probably good at math, given half the chance and proper support!

  7. Gretchen Roe

    Rebekka! It is never too late to go back to school. I just read an article about a woman in her 60s who finally achieved her goal of becoming a physician’s assistant! I think it proves what we say at Math U See, that we ARE lifelong learners! How exciting for your daughter. Kudos to you for being the mom who wouldn’t quit!


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