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“Help, my daughter hates math!”

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.

1. Sue VanHattum

I’d also recommend that she join Living Math Forum for a while. It’s a great way to soak up lots of similar ideas. There are 5,000 members, and Julie Brennan, who hosts it, does a wonderful job hosting, and also gives delightful updates about how things are going with her 4 kids.

You told her about Denise Gaskin’s variations on the game of war. She might also like Denise’s book.

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2. Bjorn Roche

In the US, arithmetic is taught at a very young age. Research has shown that children have a natural ability to grasp the concepts, but that ability develops later than we try to teach it to them, so we are wasting out time pushing arithmetic on them so early. I wouldn’t worry about children being a bit behind early on.

Speaking for myself, I was tracked in the slowest math class early on, and ended up with a degree in mathematics and now I do math in my daily work.

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Dan

Here’s a final remark from the parent in the post above:

“I was thinking back over that period and I think the thing that struck me was that she made comments about how ‘bad’ she was at math. Aside from not memorizing the math facts, nothing could be further from the truth as she actually picks up new concepts quite quickly. I knew we had to do something to separate the drudgery of memorizing from the actual math skills.

4. Ruth Parker

Hi Dan. Thank you for taking the time to so thoughtfully share this experience with us! It’s important for all of us to be working with parents, and this is a beautiful example of the impact we can have in doing so. Parents and their kids alike will come to know the beauty and engaging nature of mathematics as they work together at home. In the process, parents rethink the teaching and learning of mathematics, and it’s a win-win for everyone. Parents matter. For them to support changes in the teaching of mathematics, they need to understand those changes and why they are critical to their children’s future. I know, with certainty, that when parents and others are given opportunities to learn, they are grateful, and they become our strongest allies as they advocate for their children.

In my view, we simply cannot dramatically improve mathematics classrooms without the support of parents. For the past two decades, I’ve worked extensively with parents and the public-at-large throughout the country. I know, with great confidence, that when we provide parents and others with opportunities to learn about the changes we hope to see in the teaching and learning of mathematics, they want to be our partners in making it happen. We should find ways to all work together toward this important end.

5. Tim Frodsham

Dan’s advise is excellent. Teaching math through practical application works better than rote memorization. In addition to math as a game, you may also try incorporating math into her everyday life. At the grocery store, have her help with some of the shopping chores such figuring out how much two pounds of apples or two dozen eggs will cost. How much change will she get back from a dollar if she purchases that chocolate bar? Following Dan’s advise, pay attention to how she is responding, don’t go too fast and don’t worry.

Take this practical exercise home. Have her help double a recipe when you make a batch of cookies. This worked well with my daughters and my sons. Look for opportunities to expose your daughter to practical, every day problems without obsessing over her interest and performance. Follow and foster your daughters’ intuition.

Another aspect to attack is her math anxiety. Children and adults that doubt their math ability, engage in negative self talk. There are several good books out there: “Overcoming Math Anxiety” by Sheila Tobias or “Conquering Math Anxiety” by Cynthia Arem. They are targeted for an audience older than your daughter, but they can help you as parents avoid more negative experiences and help her build a positive attitude about math and about herself.

The most important asset your daughter has in overcoming fears, attitudes and learning math is having parents who care. From your initial cry for help to your follow through on some great advice, your daughter is in excellent hands.

6. Vrinda Khattar

As parents we are so ready to put the disinterest in math as learning disability or the parents inability to teach, leading to frustration at either end. Your comments here show how easy is it as parents and care givers to develop the child’s interest in the subject without our prejudices coming into play.

Thanks, Dan and Tim. Shall use these suggestions and see where the journey takes me and my daughter!