Recently, someone was sharing how their child was beginning to struggle with more advanced elementary math. There were problems with keeping the numbers organized and keeping track of the math and the standard ‘use graph paper’ advice was given.

While graph paper may be all that’s needed, in reality, things that are easy for kids aren’t hard to keep track of. Most of the time we take messy math as a sign that kids need help being neater, whereas I would argue that messy math doesn’t matter if kids know what they are doing. By all means, break out the graph paper, but don’t expect it to be a cure all.

Here are some ways, besides graph paper, you can help your child when they hit the wall in math.

1. Avoid frustration. People stop learning when they are frustrated so back off whenever you sense your child is at their limit. This is the most important rule when it comes to helping kids with math.

2.Explain what the real problem is. Many kids begin to self identify as stupid or dumb or not good at math when they ‘hit the wall’. In reality the issue is a lack of study skills and a need to expand their knowledge base. Be sure your child understands this and explain this is probably not the first time they will experience this.

3. Praise hard work and effort instead of results. This encourages kids to keep trying and de-emphasizes getting the right answer which reduces pressure and frustration (see #1).

4. Go back to when your child was successful. Work on math they’ve mastered and carefully observe how their thought process works. Since math so often builds on what came before, there may be some hints as to what went wrong in an earlier skill. Also, this gets kids back into their comfort zone and back to being successful.

5.Break new skills into smaller pieces or micro steps and do fewer problems, but do them slowly and frequently. Kids don’t need to do 25 problems to master a math skill, but they do need to see exactly what the steps are and need time to digest the process. Especially for something new that is challenging.

6.Work on math sense/number sense. Beef up math sense by going beyond the usual math facts. For example, most flashcards or math facts drills focus on single digits from 0-10–12 if the flashcard deck is really ambitious. Two digits and up, we often expect kids to just perform the steps of the operation as opposed to showing them (or letting them discover for themselves) the patterns for bigger numbers. So most kids get pretty good at simple math facts, but throw out 188-31 and they really have to stop and think. Go beyond the usual math facts and drill on double digits and even triple digits with various operations. This builds number sense for bigger numbers and reinforces understanding of place value.

Usually messy handwriting is a problem when kids have weak number sense and/or a poor sense of process. Kids with a strong grasp of fundamentals compensate for sloppy handwriting with their mental math skills and strong number sense.

7. Ask your child to predict the answer to a problem before they solve it. Their prediction may be (and really should be) a ballpark estimate, which is fine because what we want is a barometer for accuracy. Take 4500-1500 and ask questions like ‘do you think the answer will be less than 2000?’ and ‘what would you estimate the answer to be, just by looking?’ This kind of dialogue will tell you a lot about a child’s math sense or lack thereof. Further, it gets them using their math sense as a compass pointing toward the right answer. Eventually, they will almost instinctively know when an answer seems off.

And if their prediction is way off, be sure to dissect their thinking and show them where they took a wrong turn.

8.In the same vein as #7, be sure kids have strategies for checking their work and build that into any math work you do with them. Many times, kids aren’t asked to verify their work until later in their academic career and they often resist it because it’s a new step and outside their comfort zone. I have yet to meet a teenager who is thrilled about having to check their work. Most kids actively resist this step because it’s taught later, after the bulk of their math operation skills are learned. Get kids into the habit of checking their work and proving their answers early on to develop good habits for more challenging math.

9.Develop mental math skills to grow the areas of the brain that work on math. Challenge kids to do math in their heads. Ask them to count backwards from 100 by 2s, 3s, 7s etc… Also make a game out of how many numbers they can remember in a row–this will directly increase mental math capacity. Play FBI agent too by setting up a ‘crime scene’ or simply dumping out your purse and seeing how many objects they can remember after only 20-30 seconds. This is a fun exercise and is based on actual skills used in law enforcement (which might ignite their imaginations too!).

10.Engage in activities that stretch complex thinking and problem solving skills. Some examples include the Rush Hour game which I’ve mentioned before (everyone loves that game!). Books such as You’re the Detective are good as well. Anything that involves a knot of a problem to unravel and requires multi-step strategic thinking. Plus, since it’s not directly math related, kids won’t associate this activity with math, but it builds important logic and pattern recognition skills.

Notice that none of these tips require doing worksheets (or using graph paper!) and that many of them address underlying more oblique skills. Sometimes the deficits we think are so obvious are really a weakness hidden somewhere else (e.g. logic or pattern recognition). A comprehensive approach, such as in the tips above, will cover all the bases.

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