“Help, my daughter hates math!”

November 19, 2012

Back in August, an email with the subject “Help, my daughter hates math!” showed up in the Math for Love inbox. To quote that email:

Here’s our situation:  We are entering our fourth year of home schooling and my 10 y/o daughter has been utterly unable to memorize basic math facts.  She does seem to grasp new concepts quickly (though with minimal retention), but the arithmetic isn’t sticking however much we practice.  (This spring, for example, we practiced x3 every day for an entire month and every day it was like she was seeing them for the first time.)  Last year I decided to put her back a year with the curriculum.  My thinking was that the repetition and slower pace would fill in gaps and strengthen the foundation, while also giving her time to mature and hopefully the math facts would ‘click’.  Didn’t happen.  She’s going into 5th grade and last night it took her 42 minutes to do a 100 problem subtraction worksheet.  She, of course, hated every minute of it.

I am at my wit’s end and am looking for any assistance/advice/resources you might be able to offer.

To this mom, we sent the following advice:

You’ve got an interesting problem on your hands, and it may be a bit tricky to handle it. If I were you, I’d pull back from the kind of practice that doesn’t seem to be clicking. It’s possible (though unlikely) that she has a kind of numerical dyslexia. I think it’s more likely that the work doesn’t feel motivated for her, or the arithmetic was introduced too early, before she was developmentally ready, and she’s suffering the continuing results of an initial negative experience, or series of experiences. The fact that she hates every minute of her math homework may have some effect on her ability to do it (and vice versa).

If it’s the case that she doesn’t have an initial understanding of math as something worth doing for its own sake—and let me know what her initial experiences with math were (did she ever like it?)—then you need to decouple the arithmetic from the stress and incoherence (for her) of the practice. There’s an art to this, as well as a science. If she’s a kid who likes playing games, I’d see if I could find games that she liked playing that helped her practice these facts. And I’d start super simple, with no worries about whether she’s at the level she’s “supposed” to be at. Start with war. There’s a million variations on where to go from there. Other games to check out are nim, casino, cribbage, shut the box… even classics like monopoly will work fine. Anything that involves arithmetic gives you a starting point. The trick is, don’t get on her case during the games to emphasize the arithmetic… just play with her, and let her see that she needs to do the arithmetic to play well (or play quickly, depending on the game). If you pay attention to exactly what she’s responding well to and struggling with, you can tweak whatever you’re working on. Just don’t go too fast, and don’t worry about her needing to “catch up.” Let her take her time, have fun, and show you what works for her.

If she’s less of a game person, you can explore working with blocks, or with crafts, to get things moving. There’s a book called Family Math that is chock full of ideas for activities and games to try. You can also check out our short list of activities and books to have fun with math at home.

In short, see if you can chuck out the worksheets for a little while, and focus on playing games that will be fun in their own right, and give her the arithmetic practice she needs. If she starts playing the games (or crafts) more expertly, you can (slowly) connect what she’s doing there to her school homework. But my hunch is that focusing on the games will be the best thing you can do for her.

This evening, we heard back from the same parent, and here’s the update, a few months later:

Thank you so much for your thoughtful response to my plea for help with my daughter’s inability to memorize math facts.  I’ve taken a lot of your suggestions to heart and things have reached an equilibrium where I’m confident she’s moving ahead, but she’s not fighting back.  She was so proud of herself the other day, saying “I never thought I’d solve a problem like … !”  All is good in the math world these days!

I really tried to put your suggestion of separating “math” from “arithmetic” into practice.  I explained to her that “arithmetic” is like learning how to read and that she hadn’t really even had a taste of the cool stuff math can do.  A few times a week we find a video ([both my children] love Vi Hart and Numberphile) or a book (“Perfectly Perilous Math” is a favorite) to see the amazing things you can do with numbers. They loved it when they got to explain Fibonacci numbers to daddy!  Also, we’ve replaced our evening math worksheets with 15 minutes of math “activities”.  Her current go-to game is Colorku (a ‘color’ version of Sudoku) and I’m amazed by how fast she is getting.

And thank you for your advice not to feel pressured to have her ‘catch up’. As a homeschooling parent who’s kinda winging it, it’s nice to have a reminder that ‘working at your own pace’ sometimes means going a little slower.

Happy holidays!

It’s always great to hear that a child’s pathway in math has gotten a little less rocky and a little more in touch with what there is to love in the subject. Right as Thanksgiving week starts, there’s something to be thankful for.

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