As a school psychologist and former mathematics instructor and department chair, I know that math can be hard for some students. When I talk with parents, they share their concerns about their children's failing math grades, declining self-confidence, and increasing anxiety. They share their struggles with helping their children at home, especially when the math material goes beyond what they remember from school, when a topic is being taught in a different way from what they learned, or when their attempts to help with homework turns into a fight. What I have consistently seen is that all parents .want to know how to help their children become happy and successful in mathematicsWhen a student is struggling in math, the first step to figuring out how to help him/her become a successful math student is to identify the reason or reasons why he/she is struggling. In other words, what is preventing your student from learning? Learning and doing math is an intricate process, and there are number of areas which could contribute to difficulties in math. Some of these areas are outlined below:COGNITIVE**Processing skills**-- Sometimes when children have difficulty learning, there is an underlying deficit in some type of psychological processing such as auditory or visual processing. When a processing delay is present, it may be indicative of a learning disability. Processing-related mathematics difficulties are low in prevalance (about 5-10% of the school-aged population has a learning disability, and only 20% of these students have difficulties related to math). Most students exhibit sufficient processing abilities to learn math.**Math Skills**- One of the fundamental types of mathematical thinking involves being able to execute basic mathematical procedures. These skills range across developmental levels from completing math facts and solving long division problems in Elementary School, to simplifying equations and graphing data in Middle School, to applying algorithms and solving complex equations in High School and beyond.**Conceptual Understanding**-- Children's mathematics learning depends on their understanding of mathematical concepts. The National Council for Teachers in Mathematics outlines five content areas, which provide a nice framework for thinking about the types of concepts children work with in mathematics: number and operations, algebra, geometry, measurement, and data analysis and probability.**Metacognition and Problem Solving -**Metacognition refers to children's abilities to regulate their own thinking and learning. Students who are very successful in mathematics are able to think flexibly about math, and to combine their math skills and conceptual understandings to think critically and solve math problems. Metacognition allows children to understand what a problem is asking, to identify the types of concepts and procedures they should try to to solve a problem, and to think of what to do when they become stuck.
SOCIAL/EMOTIONAL**Beliefs -**Research has shown that children hold a wide variety of beliefs about mathematics. These beliefs include beliefs about the subject of math (e.g., math has nothing to do with the real world), beliefs about math learning and problem solving (e.g., doing math means memorizing facts, there is only one right way to solve a math problem), and beliefs about oneself and others in relation to math (e.g., I'm not a math person, girls aren't good at math). Children's maladaptive beliefs about math and themselves as math students can greatly impede their ability to be successful in math.**Confidence -**One type of belief that is particularly important to children's success in mathematics is their self-efficacy, or self-confidence in their math abilities. Many children learn through school experiences and feedback from others that they are not good at math, and as a result they lose confidence in their abilities and begin to believe that they cannot do it. The good news is that through positive experiences with math, positive math self-efficacy and self-confidence can often be restored.**Anxiety**- Anxiety is often the emotional reaction that we see when working with children who are having extreme difficulty with math. Due to anxiety, children may avoid doing math homework, dislike going to school, or exhibit other symptoms of anxiety especially before or after math tests.
There are many ways to gather information and identify the nature of a child's difficulties in math and the interventions that may help to address the difficulties. Your child's teacher is often a good place to start. Teachers are often able to provide insights about a child's math skills and learning behaviors, and can often make recommendations about the areas in which a child needs extra practice or instruction. Also within the school setting, a Student Success Team or Student Study Team (SST) can further help to identify causes of learning difficulties and develop an action plan. If there is suspicion of a learning disability, parents have a right to request an assessment from their school district at no cost, or they may also choose to seek an assessment from an outside provider. Finally, some children may benefit from additional academic and/or psychological support from a private practitioner to identify and address their difficulties and help them to develop their mathematical thinking skills and self-confidence.
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