A s a math tutor, I once took a call from a mom feeling so desperate, she held the phone out so I could hear the shouting match ensuing as her husband attempted to help their son, Chase, with math homework. It sounded more like the chaotic bedlam of a Jerry Springer soundstage than a suburban kitchen!
Tearful homework dramas are common. Chase insisted he hated math, and his frazzled parents were “losing it” trying to help. Throw in a few hormones and rebellion, and it can feel like math mayhem. Understanding the dynamics of math may help if your student is underachieving (and just may keep the kitchen less Springer-like).
Many of my tutoring students are like Chase. They have fallen behind, and feel hopeless about catching up. Then, there is the cool factor in middle school: It may no longer be embarrassing or “uncool” to be bad at math. Few tweens or teens brag they cannot read, yet there is little stigma attached to “I can’t do math.”
Parents may feel discouraged, too. Your own struggle with math can leave you feeling biased that some folks get it, and some don’t. In my experience, when students learn to do math and experience success, they begin to like it. With practice, everyone can get better at math.
High anxiety, low confidence
Test anxiety is common when students lack confidence. Confronted with repeated failure, math anxiety may be masked with callousness (“I’ll never use this stuff”), anger (“It’s too difficult!”), or false indifference (“Whatever”). With so many mixed feelings, parents struggle to offer help. Sometimes, tutoring is the answer.
Many children who struggle with math frequently shut down in math class to avoid feeling defeated. They fail to see the meaningfulness of solving abstract problems so removed from real life. They have not lived long enough to develop an appreciation for the beauty of the logic in math. So, it becomes a vicious cycle of poor performance, shutting down, failure of new material to become anchored, and so forth.
Students caught in the cycle need to feel safe enough to open up. To do so, a warm, friendly environment is essential. Instead of diving right into solving problems, a good tutor will take time to build trust with the student. The tutor will explain why investing effort is worthwhile. If this sounds touchy-feely, let me assure you that addressing anxiety is a critical step toward improved performance and grades.
Strategies that build confidence
While tutoring sessions are tailored to meet the needs of each individual student, the following strategies are always woven into my work.
1 . Engage students in a working relationship. Many students want to know WHY they must even BOTHER with math? The objective of tutoring is not to pour all the formulas, theorems, and math expertise of the tutor into the student. Improvement results from seeds being planted during tutoring, hard work, and building a strong relationship with the tutor.
2. Explore strengths and obstacles to learning. Frequently, math teachers have suggestions for how a student may improve. Chase’s teacher reported his tendency to drift off during lectures and his inability to get started on assigned work. Tutoring sessions reveal a student’s learning style, impairments (never mastered math facts? disorganized?), and strengths (good at mental math?).
3. Set them up for success. When possible, students should be given choices. Rather than articulating immediately how a math problem should be approached, students may be asked, “What math operation could be applied here?” It is deeply satisfying when they can truly own their success.
4. Provide tools to seek help. Vocabulary for math is a valuable tool for soliciting help and answers quickly and effectively from teachers and textbooks. When vocabulary is weak, a student may say, “I don’t know what to do with these fraction thing-ies,” whereas a developed vocabulary helps them express, “I keep forgetting how to convert improper fractions to mixed numbers.”
5. Explore self-image. With repeated failure in math, students may become vulnerable to negative self-talk. They may tell themselves “I’m just dumb,” or “My teacher thinks I’m slow.” Chase’s negative catchphrase was “I’ve NEVER been good at math.” Parents may unwittingly reinforce such negativity with “I was never good at math, either.” Students need encouragement that nobody is perfect, a math grade does not reflect intelligence, and math can be learned in different ways.
6. Restructure counterproductive self-talk. Taylor’s reading comprehension skills were weak for word problems in math. However, the negative “I’m horrible at word problems!” became “Reading comp is tricky for me so I have to draw pictures to get what the problem is asking.” If a student’s memory is poor for the rules to add integers “I’ll never remember all this!” can become “Until I master adding integers, I’ll refer to my notes.” Even subtle shifts in thought patterns reshape math attitudes.
7. Acknowledge that there is no substitute for hard work. It’s the mantra my students hear more than any other. Conquering math angst is an honorable quest and never a waste of time. (By the way, Chase won a math achievement award at school last month, and Taylor has a solid A- in math!) It proves my theory: Practice pays off.
Michele Ranard tutors math. She has two children, a masters in counseling, and a blog at cheekychicmama.com.