“I can't do math. I’m just not a math person.”
Updated: Feb 26, 2021
Have you heard your child say this? Maybe you’ve even said it about yourself. But I’m here to tell you, everyone can do math. Sure, some people pick it up more easily than others but that’s true of everything in life.
While we are not all destined to be engineers, we can all do math. With practice, hard work, and perseverance anyone can get better at doing math.
One of the incredible things about the brain is that it can grow. Scientists call this neuroplasticity. Each time we are exposed to a concept or complete a task, our brain builds a pathway to remember it. It’s just like the path that forms when we walk back and forth in a grassy area. Over time, the pathway becomes stronger and it’s easier for us to remember the concept or do the task.
I can't do this math...YET
But we also need to believe that we can do it. By saying, “I can’t do math” we are limiting ourselves and our brain into having a ixed mindset. Reframing the sentence just a little bit to “I can’t do this math task... YET” is having a growth mindset and it makes a world of difference.
People with a fixed mindset think they are born with certain abilities and there’s nothing they can do to change that. They give up easily when faced with challenges and will even avoid doing difficult things.
In contrast, people with a growth mindset believe that they can learn and improve. They think failure is a natural part of the learning process so they keep trying until mastery is achieved.
There are many reasons your child may be struggling in math. Here are a few possibilities:
Deficits in foundational skills
Math is sequential and cumulative. Students must achieve mastery of a concept before being able to understand the next one. This is true from day to day, unit to unit, and grade to grade. Holes in foundational skills will start to emerge and grow if deficits are not addressed.
Content is taught at a fast pace
Teachers have a lot of curriculum to cover and they often need to move on before everyone in the class has achieved mastery. Unfortunately, this is not something they can control because of pressure from school and district administrators. Students who grasp concepts quickly can manage the fast pace, but many students need more time and teachers simply don’t have the luxury to give it to them.
Not enough time given for hands on exploration
When I was in school, I learned math primarily by memorizing procedures, rules, and formulas. I honestly had no idea why I was doing any of it! Studies have shown that students learn best when math is taught using a tiered approach called Concrete-Representational-Abstract (CRA). In the Concrete phase, students are provided with hands-on materials to explore new concepts and make connections with what they already understand. In the Representational phase, students draw pictures to represent the hands on materials previously used. In the Abstract phase, students use numbers and symbols to solve math questions. Because of time constraints, students are often not given enough time - or any time at all - at the Concrete level. It is at this level that the foundation is built and conceptual understanding takes place.
Limited Practice questions
Just like learning a sport or a musical instrument, becoming good at math takes practice. However, answering 20 of the same type of problem leads a student to go on autopilot. Practice questions must be different enough to ensure students are thinking about what is being asked and which strategy they need to use to answer the question. Scientists call this interweaving. Learn more about interweaving.
Recalling the idea that our brains make deeper connections each time a concept is presented, previously learned material must be reviewed. “Spiral review” or “spaced learning” guards against forgetting everything after the test. Learn more about spaced learning.
For some students just thinking about math makes them nervous. There could be any number of reasons for this - timed math fact checks, being called on by the teacher and not knowing the answer, not understanding the material and being afraid to ask questions, even their parents’ math anxiety. As students become less successful with math, their confidence tanks and their anxiety soars. Anxiety can lead to avoidance which makes the student get further behind.
Students who are suspected of having or have been diagnosed with dyslexia (language disability), dyscalculia (math disability) or auditory, memory and processing disabilities (sensory disability) learn differently. A slower pace, use of hands-on materials, and repeated exposure are absolutely necessary. A number of other accommodations can be put in place by teachers to help students become successful.
Tutoring can address a number of these issues. As a private math tutor I can introduce concepts at the student’s pace and provide more time for review and practice. Just like a cheerleader I’m there to encourage students and celebrate their success with them. Learn more about my tutoring services.
Success in math isn’t about brain power; it’s about staying power.
So yes, your child can do math.