It can often be hard and frustrating trying to teach a child who struggles with math. No matter what you do or how you teach a concept, they just seem to fight to grasp the concepts. I know that in those moments it can be easy to lose patience, or join them in their frustrations, but in the long run, saying the following when they are frustrated or struggling will not help them. Here are some common things you should never say to the child who struggles with math (or even a child who is good at math!).
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So here are 5 things you should avoid saying (and what to say or do instead):
- “Just do it and get it over with.”
I know (because I’ve been there) that there are times when it can feel exhausting to fight the “math battle” again. But it’s not going to be beneficial for them to just “do it and get it over with.” If they’re just working through some problems in order to check it off the list for the day, they’re not actually thinking about what they’re doing. And likely, they’re not actually trying to understand or solve them correctly, they’re just trying to get it over with.
For a child who doesn’t understand mathematical procedures and algorithms, just going through the motions of working out a problem is not going to lead to conceptual understanding. So maybe instead, spend the same amount of time on fewer problems, and try to talk through the why. Or take a break from the formal math altogether and play a math card game!
- “Don’t do it that way.”
Whether you homeschool or you’re helping your child with their homework, if you were taught to solve a problem a particular way, it can be very tempting to tell them to do it your way. The thing is, there is always more than one way to solve a math problem. And just because you might approach a problem differently, doesn’t mean your child thinks the same way or sees the question in the same way. Their approach may be completely valid, so don’t stifle them just because their thinking is different than your thinking.
This is especially true for the child who normally struggles in math. It will be so disheartening to them if they have figured out a problem, and feel like they understand it only to hear that they are “doing it the wrong way.”
Instead, take time to observe their thinking. Ask probing questions like, “Why did you do this or that?” or “Can you prove that solution?” to get them to explain. And they might just surprise you by solving it in a way that was easier and more logical!
And if they are attempting a method that you know will end in error? That’s ok too. Mistakes are part of the learning process and it can be helpful for them in the long run if you just let them make some mistakes.
- “Here’s the answer.”
Please don’t just hand your kids the answers. This is not going to help them learn or understand. If you are teaching your child to read, will they grow in their knowledge and expand their vocabulary if you tell them all the hard words? Will they recognize or figure out that hard word the next time they see it? I’m not a reading teacher, but I’m willing to bet that my son will not learn to read or grow in confidence if I just tell him the word every time he reads it wrong.
If your child is struggling, let them take a break. Encourage them to move on to a different question and come back to it later. It might be helpful to set a timer and tell them that it’s ok if they don’t figure it out, but they have to work on it for at least x number of minutes (the length of time will vary depending on the age of your child). Or maybe it’s just a sign that they need to be done for the day! And sometimes, that’s ok too.
I had a math professor in college who would tell us all the time that our brains are still working even when we’re sleeping, so sometimes it is better for us to go to bed and be fully rested than to stay up all night fighting with a problem or a proof. I took her up on that advice many times, and I always felt less frustrated with the problem in the morning, and sometimes had a new idea to try and solve it!
- “You’re too slow.”
Mathematics is about recognizing patterns, and learning to problem solve. It’s about modeling life in the world around us with equations and formulas, and using those models to solve important problems. It’s not about being the fastest at computations. If it was simply about fast computing, there would be no need to study math at all because a calculator or computer can do that for us.
I know that sometimes kids are easily distracted, or they’re procrastinating or simply not doing their work (that’s a whole other issue). But if they are genuinely working, and trying, but it just takes them a little longer? That’s ok. Rushing will often lead to careless mistakes. So let them take their time.
Again, if they are slow workers, maybe they just need fewer problems. Or maybe math will just take them a little longer than everyone else. Just plan accordingly and encourage them and praise them for persevering in their work, even though it takes them a while. (Or check out this post on ideas for using timed tests effectively!)
- “I hate math too, but…”
I can’t stress this enough. Your attitude will affect your kids. If you are anxious or frustrated with it, they will be too. Even if, in your heart of hearts you absolutely detest math and nothing I nor anyone else says can change your mind, please don’t say that to your kids.
Maybe today they struggle, and it seems like they will never ever get it, but tomorrow a light bulb goes off! Maybe they will grow up to be an inspiring engineer or physicist or doctor or research scientist who cures cancer. Don’t discourage them before they’ve even had a chance to try. After all, Einstein was at one point a struggling student, and even dropped out of school for a time.
So if your child is struggling and whining and hating math, simply smile and encourage them to press on anyway. Acknowledge that it is hard, and there will likely be mistakes along the way, but that there are great lessons to learn from hard work and perseverance.
And if you hate math? Check out this post for practical tips and encouragement for moms who hate math (but want to be a positive influence and help to their kids).
What do you think? Do you, or have you, said any of these things to your kids in the midst of their math angst?
Are there any other things you should never say to the child who struggles with math?
What are some other suggestions you have to help your kids have a more positive attitude, or to at least not be so discouraged by their math struggles?
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More Helpful Resources if Your Child Struggles with Math:
- What’s Math Got to Do with It?
- Bedtime Math Series
- Recognizing and Understanding Dyscalculia
- Online Resources for Parents and Teachers
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