The Secret to Why Your Student Struggles in Math
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.
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.
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