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As Long as We Remember...

December 7, 2010

Solving Math Difficulties

Nick Diaz

Mathematics tends to make parents nervous, more so than most other school subjects. If you struggled with it as a child, it’s understandable that you might be uneasy when your child asks for help on math assignments.


And, even if you were a math whiz, well, naturally schools have gone and changed how they teach it, so it may not be how you remember it.


The good news is that you don’t have to be strong in math to support your child. All you need is time, patience, strategy, and self-discipline – not just for your child, but for yourself.


How Kids Learn Math


From a young age, children learn about numbers, shapes, and symmetry through exploration and play. You can help your child make sense of new discoveries: See whether he can solve problems using information he has gathered; then, ask him to explain how he reached a solution.


Children learn when they connect math to their experiences. Common household objects such as rulers and measuring cups can help children make those connections. In the early years, helping your child be successful in math is about providing experiences that allow him to get comfortable with math before he even knows what it is.


At school, your child will learn math in a systematic way. Math curricula vary by state and district; generally, your child will spend his elementary and middle school years learning about numbers, measurement, geometry, algebraic concepts, and probability.


It’s important for children to learn each concept as it is taught, because each new skill builds on previous skills. The foundation is so critical; whole numbers, fractions, decimals, percents...students must be able to apply these skills in real-life situations. With a weak foundation, even a bright, gifted child will get stuck.


How Parents Can Help


You can help your child establish that foundation. Early on, you can gauge his comfort level with math. Does he do homework by himself with ease, or does he need to be reminded to do it? Does he retain what he learns and apply it to the next concept? Or does he need to go back and review concepts? (The constant re-invention of the mathematical wheel can become a very inefficient undertaking.)


The answers to these questions will help you determine your role. Some children don’t need a lot of help from parents, while others need a high degree of support.


The most important thing you can do is have a positive attitude. If you hated math as a child, then JUST SHUT UP! If you emphasize your own struggles with math, your child might assume that he is destined to struggle with math. He might think that, since Mom and Dad turned out okay, then math is unimportant.


Instead, focus on ways you use math. If you are going to do half a load of laundry and for a full load you use half an ounce of detergent, how much detergent do you need? If you have a coupon for 20% off at a shoe store, how much will a pair of $60 shoes cost after the discount? A typical eighth-grade student should be able to do that simple computation in his head.


Try to make math a fun part of everyday life. If you go to your local state park, look over the trail map. If it takes about 20 minutes to walk a mile, how long will it take to walk the trail that is two and three-quarter miles?


Whole numbers, fractions, decimals, percents, geometry – all of these are components of mathematical problem-solving. Anyone can apply these concepts to everything one sees.


These exercises give you an opportunity to look for gaps in important skills. If your child can’t figure out an abstract problem, check to see whether he can do more straight-forward problems. The goal is to find gaps when they are isolated and narrow. When kids get behind a little in 3rd grade, it snowballs as they get older. The way to bypass middle-school frustration and tears is to catch early gaps and close them.


Parents can help with automatic recall, those math facts such as multiplication tables that are essential as math gets more complicated. If your 2nd grader is taking forever to complete a worksheet of two-digit addition, the problem might be that he doesn’t know single-digit facts by heart. You can help by calling out to him as you’re driving to school: What’s five plus five? Four plus six? Three plus seven? If he’s counting on his fingers or taking time to think about it, he doesn’t have that automatic recall yet.


A major issue with math is whether parents should learn the method of instruction the teacher uses, or help children by using the method they were taught in school.


If the teacher is showing a specific procedure, the parent should explain the process via the teacher’s method. On the other hand, if the teacher has presented a word problem, or an open-ended question, the parent should feel free to share his method with the child. A parent should always encourage his child to try various strategies, as this is a way to foster creative thinking and problem-solving.


When To Be Concerned


It’s normal to worry if your child gets average or poor grades in math, spends a long time on math homework, or dramatically declares that he hates math.


Talk to your child’s teacher to find out the root cause of the struggle. Come up with a plan to help him get on track. This may include after-school tutoring by the teacher, a designated time each night to work on math with a parent, and a concerted effort to integrate math into the child’s life through cooking, gardening, dance, sports, or other activities he enjoys.


Allow time for the plan to work. If, after several months, your child has not improved, it’s time for a new plan. Talk to your child’s teacher about the possibility of testing for a learning disability. If your child has a learning disability, he can get accommodations in the classroom, such as extra time on tests. This may allow him to relax during testing and get better grades.


Work with your teacher to identify ways for your child to find success, such as an alternate assignment that allows your child to express what he knows in a format he’s comfortable with. For example, some students are good at writing narratives describing how they solved a math problem. Once your child experiences success, you can build on that feeling of accomplishment.


If your child has a negative attitude, try to turn it around. What I try to do is allow students to see progress, and through that, become passionate to learn math.


Continue working with your child’s teacher to find the right approach for your child. If it’s a struggle night after night, it’s not going to get better until you change course.


Whether math comes naturally to your child or is a source of frustration, it’s important to remain involved and upbeat. It’s also important to work in partnership with your child’s teacher, making sure the child is learning the concepts he needs to build a solid foundation and reach his full potential.


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