Subtract the frustration and multiply your child’s confidence with these top tips.
Having difficulties with maths at some point in your child’s formative years is both common and frustrating for everyone. If left unchecked, or approached in the wrong manner, this problem can grow into a strong aversion, or even hatred, of mathematics and often accompanied with the belief that they are “bad” at maths.
This article is most certainly not a panacea for all the difficulties your child might face regarding maths. However, it will give you some insight into the importance of perspective, the potential nature of the problem, and some tips for you as a parent to help set them up for success.
A Broader View of Maths
For most of us, when we hear or think about maths, the first image that comes to mind is arithmetic – basic operations like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. There may be some fractions and counting as well, but the equation format usually wins out as the ‘go-to’ icon. 2+2=4. 100-25=75. 1,2,3,4,5,6…
While maths certainly includes these crucial components, it would be remiss to pass on this narrow and abstract definition of mathematics to our young learners. There are so many areas and maths applications, both abstract and practical, that go beyond basic arithmetic equation proficiency. Examples of this are measurements, time/distance, money, conversions, graphs and charts, calendar units, maps, directions, recipes, buying/selling, tracking and recording, shapes and sizes, area/perimeter, statistics, and data interpretation.
With such a variety of topics and skills housed under the umbrella of mathematics, it’s actually quite difficult for someone to be genuinely “bad” at maths. In most cases, children might only have trouble in one or two areas; however, they then believe they are bad at all maths. But this is as silly as someone trying to make a lovely French dish and in failing, deciding they are a terrible cook altogether.
Helping your little one (and maybe yourself) to understand that it’s only one or two aspects of maths they are struggling with is important. It helps to 1) localise the issue and 2) counteract the development of an “I’m bad at maths” identity. Furthermore, by exploring other areas of maths, they might stumble on a few that they excel at, giving them the confidence to have another try with the more difficult concepts.
Also consider that perhaps your kid isn’t actually struggling with the material presented, but rather how it’s been presented to them. Let’s look at the cooking analogy again. What if it wasn’t the person’s ineptitude that made them fail in making the French dish, but the recipe’s format? Perhaps it was just a list of bullet-point instructions with no pictures. Or maybe, the vocabulary wasn’t familiar to them, or it was predominantly visual information with little written instruction. The point is, we all vary in how we learn best, depending on the learning style used (visual, auditory, reading/writing, or kinesthetic). Sometimes it’s not the concept of subtraction that is hard for the student, but rather the abstract representation of the problem.
Finally, it may be the pace of learning that is the problem. When a child reaches a tough spot in their maths education, most likely due to one or more of the issues mentioned above, sometimes slowing things down temporarily can help. It’s like driving a car in the mountains during winter – when you hit an icy patch on the road, you slow-down to continue your journey and avoid losing control or spinning off the road. While you might not have control over what the teacher assigns or the class’s pace, you can move more slowly with the homework or practice problems. This helps your child gain more confidence and proficiency, which translates into increased speed to get them back on track.
Adding It All Up
To summarise, here are a few helpful tips for parents to help:
- Move slowly when working out the solution, and if possible, break the problem into more steps. For example, if converting 13/6 into a mixed number, don’t jump to 12/6 + 1/6 = 2 & 1/6, but rather, try 6/6 + 7/6, then 6/6 + 6/6 + 1/6, then 1 + 1 + 1/6, then finally 2 + 1/6 = 2 & 1/6
- Present difficult questions in a variety of formats to see what works best. For example, the concept of place value (ones, tens, hundreds, etc.) can be shown by moving blocks (kinesthetic), drawing pictures (visual), describing it with a few different words/phrases (auditory), or writing the numbers in place value columns (reading/writing). Although it may seem all the same to you, for someone new to the concept, it can make a world of difference being presented in a way that they are more comfortable learning.
- If possible, try to link the maths concept to something they’re interested in, such as cooking recipes for fractions, games with points for addition/subtraction, shopping for percentages, and tasty snacks for division (between siblings/friends). First, this motivates them to solve the problem, then boosts their confidence when they do, enabling them to tackle the concept when presented in a more challenging way.
- When working together, try pretending that you don’t know the answer rather than telling them they’re wrong. Saying something like “Hmmm, I’m not sure if that’s right…” or “Does 5+6=12? Are you sure? What about 6+6?” can be gentler than “That’s wrong.” or “5+6 doesn’t equal 12.” This helps them to discover their mistake themselves and learn from it, rather than feeling scolded or inadequate.
- Above all, when you work to help your child with maths (or any subject for that matter), try to be as patient and calm as you can. Although this is common knowledge, it’s harder to put into practice when they aren’t getting the right answers. But anger and frustration, even hidden behind a smile, don’t make things any better. Being relaxed and patient will help the student feel the same.
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