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Learning Math: Why Kids Get Frustrated and What Parents Can Do

by Maureen Stearns

When it comes to learning math, some students do just fine. Others, unfortunately, seem to hit all the snags and pitfalls while trying to learn.

Why is learning math frustrating for so many? Even those who are considered bright and hardworking have difficulty. Elementary school and high school require math and most college degrees require math too. College classes get bottlenecked with students who are taking the same math class for the second or third time. I've often heard, "I just have to pass this math class or I won't graduate!"

While teaching math to students, I have hypothesized why this occurs and it doesn't have anything to do with intelligence.

When learning math, a student must engage their full attention to the instruction. All it takes is for a student to daydream for a just few minutes and the whole week's key points can be lost to the learner. Not so with other subjects like reading and writing. A student can get away with occasional daydreaming in those subjects and still grasp the week's main point. Students can't get away with that in math. Having an absent mind for just a few minutes in math can produce poor results on tests. Making a dumb mistake on a test in reading does not produce an "F" like it does in math.

Learning math is a sequential process. Learners need to be firm with all the steps that lead up to the final answer and they need to be provided adequate time to process and practice just-taught information before a new concept is introduced. For some students, information presented in math books needs to be broken down into sub-steps that are not found in the textbooks--information that would need to be fine-tuned by the instructor. Unfortunately, because of classroom limits, there just isn't enough time to teach at every student's skill level or to break down math information for those who need it most.

A typical classroom of math students rarely starts on an even academic playing field. The differences and needs can be vast. Because of the abstract nature of mathematics, some students require multi-sensory techniques and extra drill and practice in order to catch on. There simply is not enough time to do this in most classes and if parents are unavailable or don't understand math themselves, the students suffer. It is hard for teachers to meet the needs of all math students, even with their earnest efforts and best intentions. Because of this, many math students never realize their full potential.

While working with students, I have found that the most glaring deficit in math understanding is a skill called "number sense" or the ability to have a feel for mathematical amounts. Students who have developed number sense do much better in math. Weak math students often produce answers that are not even close to being correct. They won't think to challenge whether their answer is logical--an indication they lack number sense.

Good news - even though academic frustration seems rampant, math frustration can be minimized with the help of adults playing math games or activities at home. Math games are fun and are motivating. They develop number sense and actually get kids to want to be involved. There are no class grades tied to the outcome. These activities do not need to be purchased and here's more good news--no tricky math understanding is needed for the adult. Any type of math game holds value and don't let the word "game" make you think that a math game is not academically worthy.

Here are some ideas. Some can be played alone.

  • Grab a handful of anything--jellybeans, marbles, paper clips, or pennies--anything that can produce "a bunch of." Have the child guess and write down the estimate, then count to confirm. Hands-on counting is a wonderful activity for students that need tactile validation.      
  • Find another handful of anything, estimate the amount, and then grab another handful of the same amount. Do the different handfuls hold the same amount?   
  • How many cereal Os does the child eat each morning?    
  • What is the value of a handful of pennies, nickels, dimes, or mixed coins? 
  • Fill three different sized cups with the same item. Estimate and write down how many is in one of them, count, then estimate how many are in the others. 
  • Look quickly in a drawer, close the drawer and then estimate how many items are in it.   
  • Estimate amounts in a see-through container. Guess the amount, write it on paper, count to confirm.
  • Estimate the weight of a backpack. 
  • How much time would it take to reach a certain destination?
  • Place three pennies on the counter. How many more are needed to make ten pennies? Repeat using different amounts that will equal ten. Put twelve cents on a counter. How much more will make fifty cents?
  • How long would it take to earn a certain amount of money?
  • How long would it take to earn $1,000 if you earned $5 a day walking the dog?  
  • How long would it take to spend a million dollars, spending a specific amount each day?  
  • How many inches would a 100-foot building be? 
  • Estimate weights of objects, then step on a scale. Fill a bag with items, or a suitcase, estimate the weight.  
  • Arrange objects heaviest to lightest. 
  • For older students, determine how many miles they can travel by car for 6 or 8 hours by traveling 55, then 65 miles per hour.   
  • Finally, discuss the child's strategies used for their estimating.
Increasing a students' number sense and math confidence will not solve all the challenges felt by both math strugglers and teachers. But developing number sense outside of school will certainly help. Students will be able to transfer their learned information into the classroom. Instead of just guessing the answer and hoping to be lucky, students will better know when their answer seems logical or have enough mathematical sense and confidence to keep on working.

About the Author;

Maureen Stearns--an author, parent, and educator living in St. Petersburg, Florida--has been teaching struggling learners for over 20 years. She holds both Exceptional Student Education and Community Psychology Degrees. She recently wrote Multiply and Divide with Sticks and Steps®: Teach this Easy Method in Just 5 Minutes, to help students conquer this stumbling block.

To learn more, visit http://www.sticksandsteps.com/ or http://www.ksblinks.com/.

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