By Sean Alexander

According to the latest national report card, America’s students are struggling with math. Only 37% of fourth and 27% of eighth graders scored proficient or above on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment in 2022. While scores have significantly declined since 2019 — a drop largely attributed to pandemic-related learning disruptions — mathematical progress has rarely been impressive, even in better years. So if your child is struggling in math, you’re not alone.

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The good news is that your child can improve their math performance. Research from Norway has shown that the neural connections you need to be good at math are not innate. Rather, they’re developed through practice.

The Importance of Understanding Every Student Learns Differently

If you have more than one child, you’ve probably discovered that what works for one doesn’t always work for the other. The same is true in learning. While the notion that some children perform better if taught through their preferred learning style — auditory, visual, or kinesthetic — has been largely debunked, there’s no doubt that kids learn better when engaged.

Every child is different when it comes to what they find meaningful. If you can tap into your child’s interests, learning math will be easier and more rewarding. For instance, children who are obsessed with Minecraft can incorporate math concepts into their play.

Proven Math Strategies for Struggling Students

Kids can face math challenges at all grade levels, so even a child with exceptional mathematical thinking may need help occasionally. Try some of the following math teaching strategies to give your child an advantage.

1. Address Foundational Gaps

A foundational learning gap is a skill that your child should have mastered but hasn’t. They may have missed a concept because of virtual learning, or they may not have had enough practice when the class was going over it. Math teachers often have to move on to complete the math curriculum, even if students haven’t mastered the topic.

If your child is young and learning basic mathematical concepts, you may know the skills they’re lacking. Some extra time practicing to reach automaticity with math fact flash cards might be all they need to fill in their gaps. If they’re older and you haven’t learned — or have forgotten — the more advanced concepts they’re learning, getting an assessment from a tutor can help you find and address conceptual gaps.

2. Implement Visual Representations of Complex Math Concepts

Often concepts that are confusing for children to learn in the abstract become clear with a hands-on demonstration. The concrete-visual-representational approach lets children develop a deep understanding of a topic by first introducing it with concrete resources, such as base ten blocks or real-world items.

Once the child understands how it works with physical objects, you can move on to drawing models and then to using numbers and equations. Singapore uses these math instructional strategies in its national curriculum and routinely scores among the highest in the world in mathematics — far above the US’s 22nd ranking.

3. Ensure Mathematical Understanding Rather Than Just Memorizing

Although there is a place for memorization in mathematics, you shouldn’t focus on rote repetition before your child has a solid mathematical understanding of a topic. Long before your child memorizes 3 x 7, they should spend a lot of time creating groups and drawing arrays to understand why the answer is 21. Similarly, students in advanced math need to understand why they’re using formulas instead of just memorizing them.

Math shortcuts or “tricks” can be useful, but only after your student understands why they work. Students often struggle to solve word problems because they’ve just been taught to skim the surface by looking for keywords rather than truly comprehending what the problem is asking.

4. Apply Math to Real-World Situations

You probably started reading to your child as soon as you brought them home from the hospital. Most parents routinely read to their children and apply literacy concepts in everyday life. Unfortunately, many people don’t feel comfortable doing the same with math. You use math every day, so take the opportunity to apply what your child is learning to everyday situations at home. Have them figure out the tip at the restaurant, or let them compare prices to find the best value next time you’re shopping. Encourage them to create a budget for your next vacation by researching airline and hotel prices or determining how much you’ll need to spend on gas for a road trip.

5. Break Down Complex Problems

As students get into more advanced math, problems become harder and more complex. Your child may need to organize their work and complete multiple steps to get to the answer. Breaking the problem up can keep your child from getting overwhelmed and frustrated. Make sure they keep their work neat and orderly so they can refer back to earlier steps when they move on. Graphic organizers can be an effective strategy for breaking up and solving difficult problems.

6. Make Math Fun

You’ll have a hard time convincing your child that sitting down to do a page of math problems is fun. However, you’re not limited to math worksheets. You can institute a math family game night to have a good time and learn along with your kids. Or let them take their problems outside and solve them with sidewalk chalk. Show your student the playful side of math by giving them fun riddles and puzzles.

7. Incorporate Interactive Tools and Educational Apps

For today’s digital natives, learning through apps and interactive tech is second nature. Math games like Prodigy or Math Playground can give your child extra practice that doesn’t feel like a chore. If you’re looking to get away from screens, Hands-On Equations provide concrete, interactive experiences with algebra that even third- and fourth-grade math students can understand.

8. Seek Peer-to-Peer Guidance

Sometimes the best teacher is the one who just recently learned a concept. While you wouldn’t want a teenager as a full-time algebra teacher, peer tutoring can help with some math struggles. Students who are your child’s age or slightly older may relate to them better and often remember and can share methods that helped them overcome the issues your child is struggling with. Peer tutoring may also help reduce math anxiety — perhaps because students feel more at ease when learning from others their own age. See if your child's school offers peer tutoring, or ask their teacher for a recommendation.

Take a New Approach to Mathematics With an Experienced Math Tutor

In addition to teaching math strategies to struggling students, one of the best things you can do is to get a tutor. A tutor will work with your child one-on-one at their pace and ensure they fully understand each topic before moving on. At Alexander Tutoring, we create customized math intervention strategies to help your child develop problem-solving strategies. Unlike a traditional math classroom, we can cover math using methods that are ideal for your child without having to worry about dozens of other students. Reach out today to help your child overcome challenges in math and grow to their full potential.

Author

  • Sean Alexander

    COMMAND PILOT, OWNER Sean has been a professional educator for 15 years and has taught math, physics, and astronomy at all levels.  His experience ranges from working at a high school for severe learning differences to teaching advanced physics at Stanford.  After completing his graduate work in theoretical physics Sean founded Alexander Tutoring, with the mission of revealing the deep connections between math and nature to as many students as possible. 

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