Why studying math is so hard? 😫

If you’ve been around Educational Connections for a while, you’ve probably heard me talk about my first encounter with tutoring—and it wasn’t as a tutor. I was a student. It was the summer between fourth and fifth grade, and I simply could not figure out long division.

All the steps confused and frustrated me, and I never could seem to get it right. That summer, my mom got me my first tutor. I biked to her house every week until I finally mastered long division and regained my self-confidence.

I bring up that story today to say this: Math concepts are hard to study. I experienced it myself as a student, and we hear it from kids and parents every day. 

The biggest challenge is that math is incredibly hands-on. You can’t just throw some definitions on an index card or quiz your child aloud on the ride to school. Fortunately, our head tutor Jan Rowe has a technique that can help.

Watch this short video to see how you can turn the math homework your child is already doing into a helpful study tool that can be used again and again before their next big math test:

Don’t you just love how simple that is? Here’s all you need to do to use this strategy with your child. (It works for all ages!)


1. Grab some graph paper.

This isn’t required, but many students find it easier to keep track of numbers when using graph paper to line them up properly.


2. Write the steps on the right side of the sheet.

Using your child’s textbook or notes from class, help them write out the steps on the right side of the sheet, so they can easily follow them as they work through their homework problem.


3. Work the problem on the left side of the page.

Help your child write the homework problem on the left side of the page, beside the steps they need to follow. This allows them to stay focused and on-track, especially when working through a lot of steps.


4. Keep the homework sheet handy for easy access later.

Now that you have a sample problem and the steps to solve it on one easy-to-read piece of paper, don’t throw it away! Store any practice sheets you create in one convenient place, so your child can use them to review steps and work through more sample problems leading up to their next big test.

It’s that simple! This strategy isn’t complicated, time-consuming, or expensive to try, and it makes studying math much easier and more effective. Try it out with your child this week, then hit reply to let me know how it went!


Studying math is hard. We can help!

If your child needs a bit of extra support to conquer confusing math concepts, please don’t feel like you have to relearn it all yourself just to help out. (Math has changed so much since we were kids, hasn’t it?) 

Instead, click below to request a tutor, and we’ll send someone to your home to help your child one-on-one. It’s the easiest way to give your child the skills and, more importantly, the confidence they need to conquer math, school, and any other challenges life throws their way!

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Why Is Math So Hard? School Subjects Where Falling Behind Spells Real Trouble

why is math so hard image 1The question “why is math so hard?” is one we come across so often with the parents and students we work with, it’s become almost a given. We hear things like:

“My son just doesn’t seem to ‘take’ to math. He’s just like his mom.”

“Why is it that even when my daughter really ‘buckles down’ and tries to catch up in Algebra, she still does poorly on quizzes and exams? But then she can turn around, spend a weekend with her history textbook, and ace her essays and tests?”

“It seems like ever since they started algebra, he’s been struggling and hasn’t been able to ‘get it’ no matter how hard he tries.”

But what most people don’t realize is, although math may present some specific difficulties for some children, most of these questions aren’t actually about math at all, but rather any of the school subjects that build on each other cumulatively.

With these types of classes, because each topic builds on the last (like layering bricks), they’re very unforgiving if your child starts to fall behind. And if you’re not on top of it, a “C” on a quiz or two can quickly snowball into a string of C’s on their next report card, or more importantly, a lack of understanding of those topics and a permanent aversion towards them for the rest of their time in school.

Now don’t worry, it’s not all gloom and doom if your child finds themselves behind in these subjects. In this post we’ll cover exactly which subjects you do need to watch out for, how to know when your child is truly struggling, and when you should step in to get them some extra help.

Why is math so hard? What most people think the problem is (and what’s really going on)

When a student continues to struggle in a complex, cumulative topic like math, language, or some of the more advanced sciences (physics, chemistry), we tend to think a few things right off the bat:

  • Maybe they just don’t have the “math gene,” I certainly didn’t
  • Maybe their teacher is just going too fast for them
  • Maybe they’re just more “right-brained” and don’t find math or science interesting

And to some extent, those things can be true.

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In 2005, Gallup conducted a poll that showed math as the subject students found the least interesting and most challenging across the board. These students found math to be the least intrinsically motivating, either because they never found it interesting to begin with, or because they developed that attitude over time.

But apart from genetic pre-dispositions, which may preclude students from pursuing a career as a mathematician or PhD chemist, most likely this lack of interest and motivation is coming from somewhere else. Let’s dig a little deeper.

The Swiss Cheese Problem

It was 1983, and there I was sitting in my 8th grade algebra class at Hoover Middle School in Indialantic, Florida. I look up at the board and I see yet another equation, and my neck starts to get stiff, and my shoulders get tense, and I thought to myself:

“I’m never going to learn this”

But I really wanted to. I was sitting in the front row of the class, talking myself into learning. However, inevitably within a few minutes I was off daydreaming about something else as my teacher droned on and on and on.

And when I would go home to do my homework, I didn’t really know what I was doing. It started off where I would do most of it, but maybe leave a few questions blank. But then slowly but surely that turned into: I only did about half of the homework questions. And then after a few weeks, not much of it at all.

And what happens when you aren’t really doing the homework?

(1) You don’t get any of the extra practice, which means
(2) You don’t know what’s going on in class the next day when you move on to more complicated problems, which means
(3) You’re even further behind when you go to do the next set of homework problems…

And on, and on, until that unit test grade smacks you in the face with a C or a D, and your motivation continues to dwindle.

This was all a complete surprise to my parents and teachers, because for all intents and purposes I was the model student. I always came to class, sat in the front, and acted as though I was paying attention.

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But behind the scenes, my understanding of what was going on in these cumulative classes looked more like “Swiss Cheese:” I had some of the pieces put together, enough to struggle through at first. But there were holes in my learning and those accumulate over time.

This was my issue with math, and it’s the same issue we see over and over with the students that we help.

School subjects that are cumulative are like building a brick wall

Math, the languages, and many of the sciences are cumulative: if you don’t learn the fundamentals, you’ll continue to be more and more confused, and fall further and further behind as the class progresses forward.

This was my problem in algebra class. But you can see this problem happening with far earlier than that. Take fractions, for example.

If your child has difficulty understanding fractions, they may be able to remember a few simple concepts like:

1/4 = 2/8 or 1/6 + 5/6 = 1

But if when it comes to adding fractions with different denominator (e.g. 1/4 + 2/7) they don’t grasp the method, then what happens when they get to more complicated arithmetic problems like this:

102/7 + 25/4

A gap in understanding appears.

As these gaps accumulate, it becomes harder and harder to fill them in, and more unlikely that you will be able to fully grasp algebra or calculus later on. If a student becomes discouraged at an early age and it is not remediated quickly, then it is probably that the student will become disillusioned with the subject entirely.

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It’s like building a brick wall: if your foundation is weak, whatever you stack on top of it is going to be unstable, and quickly be reduced to rubble if put under scrutiny.

Cumulative vs. non-cumulative school subjects

Now the story can be much different for subjects like english and history. If your son or daughter struggles with the “Hamlet” unit in english class, or misses class during “Roman Empire” unit in world history, they may end up with a few poor grades on some essays and a unit test, but beyond that it’s relatively straightforward to recover.

You figure out what they did wrong, why they missed what they missed, and approach the next topic with a renewed study strategy. These non-cumulative subjects are much less “dangerous” to fall behind in, because a short-term concerted effort can recover much of what was lost during the period they missed.

Here’s a quick breakdown of which subjects fit into which category:

Subject Type Subjects If they fall behind…

Non-cumulative

English, Reading, Social Studies/History, Earth Science, Biology

Pay attention, use questions and reminders to guide them in the right direction, but no need to immediately step in. Unless they repeatedly struggle, or show aversion to multiple different topics, books, or units some gentle guidance and suggestions should be enough to ensure they get back on track.

Cumulative

All Math classes (Arithmetic, Geometry, Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Calculus, Statistics, etc.), All Foreign Languages (Spanish, French, German, Latin, etc.), Chemistry, Physics

If they show any signs of multiple poor grades in a row, uncharacteristically low grades, a big unit test failure, or an aversion to the subject, take action now to either step in yourself or hire a tutor to help them catch up as quickly as possible.

Other potential signs include: when they don’t want to show you the homework portal or say they don’t have homework in that class, or you suggest they go see the teacher and they refuse to.

Now the real question becomes: what do we do about it?

Step 1: Are they really falling behind, or just temporarily struggling?

Now how do we know whether our kids are actually starting to slip in class, or whether they just had a bad week or two that led to some uncharacteristic grades? When do we need to think about stepping in?

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The good thing is, like we briefly summarized in the table above, there are some telltale signs that indicate whether or not your child is falling behind in one of these cumulative subjects.

You probably DON’T need to step in yet if they:

  • Had one or two low homework or quiz grades, but then quickly recovered (still pay attention though)
  • Came home with an out-of-the-ordinary test grade with a clear cause you can point to unrelated to their understanding of the material (e.g. a stupid mistake, were sick when they took the test, etc.)
  • Are having trouble with one or two specific concepts, but are open to help and willing to work through it

You probably DO need to step in a get some extra help if they:

  • Come home with a string of low grades on quizzes and assignments
  • Bomb a unit test or come home with a highly uncharacteristic grade
  • Are spending an inordinate amount of time studying each night with no improvement in grades
  • Seem “down” about the subject or aversive to studying it
  • Say they don’t have homework or studying for that class
  • Don’t want to go see the teacher if you suggest it

You know your kid best, so use these guidelines and your best judgement to evaluate whether they’re having real trouble or are just going through a temporary sticking point. And if you do suspect something is up, it may be worthwhile to have a brief dialogue with their teacher to see what they say about their performance in class.

Step 2: How to help them “catch up” in cumulative school subjects

Once you have recognized that your child is struggling, there are two paths you can take: either (1) step in to help yourself and work with them and their teacher to get them back on track, or (2) hire a tutor to help them “fill in the gaps,” rebuild their foundation in that course, and get them confident and motivated to keep up during class again.

Steps you can take as a parent

The first thing you can do in the case of a poor test grade, is to help them take advantage of the retake policy if the teacher has one. If your child isn’t making test corrections or letting you know about a chance to retake the test, it’s a good sign they’re feeling defeating. So take this opportunity to discuss options with their teacher and see if there’s still a chance for kid to retake test.

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Second, kids are usually afraid of rejection and typically won’t be willing to write the teacher an email with a question or an ask for help. So sit with them and help them write out an email to their teacher:

“Hi Mrs. Smith,
I’m working on my homework due this Tuesday and I’m really not understanding how to use the Pythagorean Theorem. Can I stop by after class tomorrow to ask you about it?”

Most of the time just writing and sending that one email will lift a huge load off of their shoulders, especially when they realize their teacher is most likely going to be very receptive to helping them out.

Third, see if they can attend study hall after school and sit in the classroom with their teacher while they do their homework. Inevitably they’ll end up asking for help with problems they’re stuck on and feel more comfortable doing so with their teacher in the room without the pressure of their classmates present. This will help them get in the routine of asking for help when they need it without feeling embarrassed.

Steps you can take with a tutor

Although many parents are fully equipped to help their children with homework and studying, a tutor is, in the large majority of cases, are more effective means for getting your child back up to speed in a subject like math or foreign language if for no other reason than: they’re a new face and an outside voice with less “stake” in the game.

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Photo: US Department of Education

Additionally, if a tutor really knows what they’re doing, they’ll be able to diagnose where your child is struggling, and take progressive steps to close those subject gaps, catch them up, and build up their ability to keep up with the new material. Here’s for example, what our tutors will generally do:

  1. Assess where the student is right now, and identify any gaps in the fundamentals that will need to be addressed right off the bat.
  2. Build an execute a plan to fill those holes in understanding and re-teach that material expediently so that the child still has time left over to work on the current work going on in class.
  3. Spend additional time helping them through their homework, and helping them prepare for upcoming quizzes and tests. Because the worst thing that can happen is to have them continue to lose ground and lose confidence as they go back to the basics and try to re-learn older material.
  4. Once the student has started to master the old material they missed out on, then ideally the tutor will have them start to preview what they’ll see next so that they feel more motivated and focused by the time they get to school and take on that topic during class. This is much more powerful than remediation alone, and will improve grades and confidence more than simply reviewing and correcting material after the fact.
  5. Work with the student to take practice tests ahead of their actual exams. In general, kids who perform poorly in specific subjects like math tend to have a very inaccurate idea of how much they actually know. Tutors can create and administer practice tests to both help students identify where they still need work, and also to prepare for the pressures of solving problems within the testing format and timeframe.

Take Action

Whether you decide to step in yourself first, or move forward with a subject tutor for your child, the most important thing is to work quickly to get them moving in the right direction.

If you’ve done the work to identify that they’re really struggling, further delay will only make things worse. So put together a plan, and start working towards stopping the cumulative snowball effect from progressing any farther.

If you think tutoring may be the best option to get your child back on track, and you live in the DC/Virginia/Maryland area, you can contact us here or call (703) 934-8282 and we’ll be happy to walk you through some options we have available.

If you’re not local to us, a quick Google search for “Algebra tutor” or “Spanish tutor” within your area should yield some good options to choose from. Feel free to use our math or foreign language tutoring overviews to give you a sense of what to look for.

And finally, if you have any comments, questions, or feedback for us, leave a comment below! We love hearing from you and would be happy to help where we can.

Math Anxiety: 7 Steps To Conquer It (Even If You’re Not A Math Person)

math anxiety image1When you read through this list of concepts:

  • Pythagorean Theorem
  • Order of Operations
  • Multivariable Algebraic Equations
  • Distributive Property
  • Factoring

How does it make you feel?

Do these words make your heart flutter with excitement? Or do you feel panic and dread?

If the answer is the former, consider yourself lucky, because math is probably “your thing.”

If it’s the latter, then don’t worry… you’re not alone. Because math anxiety is a real problem for both students, and even adults later on in life.

As a teacher, I had many students over the years that had a natural knack for numbers. I also taught many that had hardly any “math sense” at all.

These students could often tackle rote math problems, but throw in a few complicated word problems and they’d feel overwhelmed.

My experience has taught me that apprehension about math and all the physical affects that go along with it (elevated heart rate, queasy stomach, inability to focus) are very real. I’ve seen it in students I’ve taught in the classroom and those that I’ve tutored.

And I’ve always wondered what causes such uneasiness in the first place?

So in this post we’ll dive into what math anxiety really is, its most common causes, and how you (as a parent) can help your student.

What is math anxiety?

Let’s first take a look at how our brains process information.

When students solve problems the information first flows through the amygdala, the part of the brain known as the “emotion center.” It’s only then, after about a millisecond, that the information is transmitted into the prefrontal cortex, where critical thinking and reasoning occur.

math anxiety image 2This is important in the case of math anxiety, because the amygdala is the “filter” that the information goes through first before it gets processed by the analytical part of the brain. And when math is perceived as a “threat,” the amygdala in students who feel this way becomes overactive, which leads the prefrontal cortex to be underutilized.

In fact, an individual with math anxiety does not just dislike the subject, he or she feels actual negative emotions when it comes to performing activities that involve numerical or math skills.

And according to a recent study of college students, the sheer suggestion of a math examination triggered a stress response in students with math anxiety, actually cutting off the working memory necessary to solve those same problems.

Math Anxiety: What the latest research says

A recent study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry reveals that this common problem is actually two-fold.

First, students who have significant difficulty in math come by it genetically. After following 216 identical twins and 298 same-sex fraternal twins over seven years, researchers found that genetic factors related to general anxiety and math cognition accounted for 40 percent of the variance in math anxiety.

The other 60 percent of variance was explained by environmental factors, including negative experiences with math at an early age and learned behaviors. Teachers and parents can even pass down their negative attitudes and own anxiety over math. A lot of anxiety surrounding the subject actually comes from classrooms that do not establish or promote a growth mindset, one focused on effort and true learning, and instead they focus on test scores and correct answers.

So ironically, to explain the cause behind anxiety towards math, what we have is actually… well… a math problem:

WEAK ABILITY + NERVOUS TENDENCIES + NEGATIVE EXPERIENCES = MATH ANXIETY

How to help your child conquer math anxiety

Keeping in mind that every child has their strengths and weaknesses, and some students may simply struggle in math even if they don’t have anxiety, there are steps you can take as a parent to help your child improve in math and achieve the level of competence they need to succeed in school.

Step 1: Understand that your child is not lazy or unmotivated

Realize that motivation will wane in a subject that is naturally difficult. It makes sense that when a task is hard, humans will naturally avoid it. That’s why poor math students will procrastinate when it comes to homework or avoid it totally.

math anxiety image 3

Studying for math tests will never be at the top of the “to do” list if your child struggles with it. Simply having the understanding that your child isn’t lazy or unmotivated is important, because you can then start to address some of underlying causes instead.

Step 2: Realize that math is 100% cumulative

Aside from foreign languages, math is the one subject that’s 100% cumulative. When I explain math to parents calling our office requesting a tutor, I often use the analogy of a construction worker putting up scaffolding. Without a strong foundation, the next level will not sit firmly.

Think of fractions. If you cannot find the greatest common factor with ease, you will not be able to add fractions with unlike denominators. One skill builds upon the next, and because of this it’s critical to understand that you can’t simply “catch up” as you might in another subject.

Step 3: Do not delay if your child is having difficulty

Because math skills are amassed, problems rarely if ever improve without intervention. Simply telling your child to “study harder” will not make a difference. Get assistance in the form of a tutor or extra help from the teacher, because if they are procrastinating and missing assignments they will begin to fall further behind, and this is a huge worry because it can lead to further stress and anxiety.

A 2015 study out of Stanford University found that when third graders with math learning disabilities went through just 8 weeks of one-on-one tutoring for arithmetic, the “abnormal brain function” specific to learning math in these children (as measured by fMRI) completely disappeared, and their performance improved accordingly.

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This is all just to say: intervention can work, so take action earlier rather than later.

Step 4: Do not push advanced classes

The trend these days is for students to take advanced math classes early on, beginning with Algebra in 7th or 8th grade. This approach is a good one for many students but not for all. Those experiencing significant math anxieties may be further stymied because they feel overwhelmed and underprepared. Although your child may be capable of keeping up, don’t force advanced classes if he or she is not quite ready.

Step 5: Praise effort, not intelligence

Growing up, I had a very hard time in math. My mother used to say, “You’re just like me. I was terrible at math, too. It runs in the family.” Looking back, I know she was trying to make me feel better, but the opposite happened. I started to think that math ability was genetic and there wasn’t a whole heck of a lot I could do about it. I started to give up. 

As parents, we want to foster effort, not intelligence. Study after study evidences that when teachers are parents notice effort, students start to associate hard work with progress. They are less likely to agree with the notion that math is a fixed ability (that you either have it or you don’t), and that has a huge impact on their performance in school. I highly recommend Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. In it, she details how the right type of praise can motivate kids.

Step 6: Don’t say: “Don’t worry about it”

If you have a child who is anxious about math and exhibits test anxiety, whatever you do, do not use the words, “Don’t worry about it.” I can guarantee you that your child will worry about it, because it’s impossible for nervous students to turn their worry switch off on a dime.

Instead, ask your child how she’s feeling. What exactly is stressing her out? And then let them air out what they’re thinking about. When children are able to express their feelings, anxiety lessens, and you can then move on more readily towards solving the problem.

Step 7: Tackle “Test Anxiety” and allow the math to follow

Test anxiety in any subject increases when students sit down to take a test knowing they are not fully prepared, regardless if they have specific trouble in math. So one effective approach to the problem is to help establish a test preparation routine for any exam your child is taking, math or otherwise. Those habits will then inevitably spill over to math.

So no only is the old adage “You can’t study for math” is simply not true, the best way for a student to prepare is to make a practice test and solve the problems as if it is the real exam. This allows the student to know which problems he cannot solve and to practice accordingly. In many instances, proper preparation decreases stress on test day, which may be a big factor contributing towards your child’s anxiety towards math as a whole.

Take action

In the end, problems with math tend not to be simply just a “bump in the road.” And because of its cumulative nature, if not addresses and worked through, they can become chronic and significant.

Be aware and jump in early if you see symptoms of math anxiety starting to creep in, so that your child’s self-confidence and enthusiasm for learning aren’t left behind.

I hope you found this post helpful, and please let us know what you think in the comments!

ADHD And Math: 3 Struggles For Students With ADHD (And How To Help)

adhd and math image 1I remember in elementary school memorizing my math times tables… what stands out most to be is the “mad minute.”

It was a short quiz of 20 multiplication problems and we were given one minute to complete them… and it could probably be defined as the most stressful 60 seconds of my young life!

Now, imagine doing that exercise, but at the same time not being able to keep track of all these operations in your head and constantly losing focus on the problem.

This is what most of our children with ADHD face when they look at a math problem.

ADHD and math don’t seem to be a “natural” fit, and there are various factors that go into why math is so difficult for kids with ADHD.

So in this post, we’ll break down some of the struggles kids with ADHD face in math class, and some ways to help make sure your child’s math foundation is strong.

ADHD and Math: The issue at hand

Students who are affected by ADHD often have a hard time with math because their memory is not very strong and blocking out external stimuli is a struggle.

Memory, which is where information is stored for later use, is one of many executive functions. Executive functions refer to skills such as reasoning, task switching, and planning. Kids with ADHD do not have strong executive function skills, which significantly affects their performance in school.

Which brings us to our first struggle…

Struggle 1: Word problems are overwhelming

A 25 foot ladder is leaning against a house and a hose is stretched from the base of the house to the garden and passes the ladder after 8 feet and you have to find out how tall the house is and what the angle the ladder makes with the house.

Wait, what just happened?

If you read the problem above and got confused or zoned out, you’re like many people who dread word problems. For students with ADHD, the stumbling block with word problems lies in the combination of words and numbers that make it difficult to store the information in their memory as they progress through the problem.

Even if the student is able to follow along with the problem, when it comes time to solve it, all of their energy and focus is already used up!

The solution to the word problem struggle

Have your student read the problem in small parts and draw a picture of the part he just read.  This breaks the word problem into chunks, allowing the student to place just a small piece of information into his head.  Adding a tactile and visual dimension to his learning by drawing part of the problem at a time only strengthens his memory.

Check out the image below. It shows what the picture might look like as your child is reading.  By the end of reading the word problem, he will have completed the drawing in the bottom right.

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Taking this piece by piece approach to reading and drawing might mean that your child might have to change the original drawing as he goes, but that’s okay… it’s important to get something on the page before he finishes reading the whole problem.

Struggle 2:Order of operations are confusing

Remember PEMDAS: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally?

It’s an acronym that stands for Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction and is supposed to help us recall the order of operations in complex math problems.

The struggle that students with ADHD have with math problems that require them to conjure up the correct order of operations has to do with their working memory and ability to maintain focus throughout the multiple problem solving procedures.

Solution? Make it visual

Have your student highlight math signs and symbols.

adhd and math image 3Make colored pens, markers, and highlighters your kid’s best friend by encouraging her to color or highlight the sign, – + = x ÷, of each problem.

ADDitude magazine recommends highlighting math signs because it is a visual reminder to the student of the kind of math operation needed to solve the problem.

It may also be helpful in downtime to allow use of mobile math apps that work on the topic your child is struggling with. These tend to be effective because of the very high level of visual engagement kids have with video games and screen time.

Struggle 3: Staying focused enough to finish the problem

Aside from issues with working memory, issues with focus are why students with ADHD tend to struggle with math problems.

Staying intently focused on a single task takes a ton of mental energy, which often conflicts with the desire that many kids with ADHD have for constantly changing stimulation.

This is why completing a mathematical proof, a complex word problem, or a problem involving intricate problem-solving procedures can seem out of reach for your child.

Solution to the focus problem:

Have your child take a focus break. Focus breaks are 2-5 minute breaks when the student steps away from his homework, even if it’s in the middle of a long mathematical problem, and does something unrelated to his work.

This might be spending a few minutes on his phone, playing fetch with the dog, or better yet, a brain exercise to strengthen his focus. Dr. Robert Myers writes about brain exercises that are used to improve the executive functions in kids with ADHD.

Does your child struggle with ADHD and math?

We want to help you and your child who may exhibit any of these struggles. To get more tips and resources to help your child with ADHD, click here.

2 Simple Techniques That Boost Confidence & Understanding: Review & Preview

For me, math was my Achille’s heel in school, and like many kids, I wasn’t alone. It was two simple ideas that turned learning around for me and these techniques work in virtually every subject.

I want to take you back to the year of 1983. The year of big hair, flash dance, General Hospital, and Three’s Company. I’m 14 years old and I’m sitting in my eighth grade algebra class, staring blankly at the formula on the chalkboard. I can feel my neck tighten and my shoulders tense up because I just don’t get it. I desperately want to get it, but I just don’t. I even sit in the front row of the class so I can pay even more attention. I mean, what kid intentionally sits in the front row? Every day, I’d walk into class and say to myself, “Ann, today’s going to be the day you focus long enough to learn this math!” But within five minutes, I was lost once again.

As it turns out, I had a very hard time focusing on the things that weren’t interesting to me that I found too complex. And the lecture-based way math was taught to me wasn’t the way I could learn the material.

At home, my parents tried to help me as much as they could. I remember one day I sat down with my dad at my little yellow Ethan Allen desk. My dad was a soft spoken, thoughtful man. He was an engineer so his world was all about numbers. He lived his days with formulas, solving problems to the precise decimal. So who better than him to help me understand algebra?

We finally worked through a tricky problem consisting of two variables. I said the answer was positive, but he said it was negative. I started to argue with him about why “x” was clearly positive, and in a moment of utter frustration my dad stood up, his face bright red, and hurled my math book against the wall. It exploded into this flurry of pages and I thought, “Oh my god, what is going on?”

Hearing all the commotion, my mother walked in and said, “you’re getting a tutor.” And thank God I did because that began my journey of understanding why I wasn’t getting all of this. It was my tutor Mr. Rogo who helped me realize that my problem wasn’t related to intelligence or ability, but instead had to do with my inability to focus in certain settings and to study effectively.

Reviewing Helped a Lot

The first thing my tutor did was go back to the holes in my learning and fix them and fill them in. This was a time of heavy reviewing. Then he showed me how to use examples in my book and notes to study independently. And we practiced problems to the point of overlearning, so that I truly understood the concepts at a deep level, not just a superficial one.

Previewing Sealed the Deal

Finally, he taught me the concept of previewing, which to this day is how we teach kids with gaps in their learning to overcome their obstacles. Previewing is different from reviewing, because instead of focusing on topics already taught, it focuses on knowledge not yet acquired.  For instance, if fractions were taught at the start of the year, reviewing them over winter break would be a wise thing to do, but previewing more difficult topics like quadratic equations that won’t be taught until April, will also set your child up for success.  You can preview topics that will be taught in the next class, or even in the next unit next month!  They don’t have to understand everything about topics their teachers have not taught yet, but becoming familiar with the concepts and how their base knowledge can be applied to more complex problems is a sure-fire way to prime them for what’s to come.

And the good news is that the review-preview technique works for any topics, not just math!

How Can You as a Parent Help Your Child Who is Having Subject Struggles?

First, understand that your child might be feeling down about the particular subject. When kids feel dejected, they’re going to be avoidant. It’s common for them to either put very little effort into their homework if they even do it all and to have a very low tolerance for frustration. What feels easy and simple to other students might feel overwhelming for your child.

Sometimes, kids will ask their parents for help, and if this happens in your home, it’s a good sign. It means that your child cares enough to get your opinion. When you’re in this situation and your child is stuck, like if your sixth grader is frustrated because she just doesn’t understand how to set up ratios in math, there are three ways you can respond: 

  • Option 1:“Honey, let me show you how to do this. First, set up the fraction like this and then you make sure the numerator …” But inevitably you hear, “Mom, that’s not the way Mrs. Smith says to do it!”
  • Option 2:“Suzie, I already went to sixth grade. This is your homework, not mine.” This might feel good at the moment, but if you want your child to come to you later on when he or she needs support, this probably isn’t the best response.
  • Option 3:“These ratios can be tough. Are there examples from your notes or do you have a similar problem like this in your book?”

What’s the best approach?

Option 3 is the best answer because you’re leading your daughter to the answer without telling her what to do. You’re helping her figure it out on her own which is a skill she absolutely needs to have in sixth grade and through middle and high school.

Now, if you’re feeling especially confident, you can help even more with the preview technique. When kids not only understand the skills involved in their homework but they also get a sneak peek and understand what they’re going to see in class the next day or even the next month, they’ll be better able to focus and feel a whole lot more confident.

When we tutor kids in content areas, we do a number of things during the session, such as reviewing by filling in holes and learning a skill to mastery at a deep level, not just superficially. But we also take the last few minutes of each session to preview what they’re going to see next in class. Previewing has been shown by research to not only improve confidence, but test grades as well.

 

Help! Math Is Driving My Child Crazy!

pic-2If math isn’t your child’s best subject, then it’s probably no surprise that he may feel  anxious when it comes to learning how to solve problems. Add testing into the mix, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for frustration, anger, and stress when it comes to his feelings toward school. Oftentimes it feels like kids will ace practice problems and homework, but when they take the test, their mind goes blank and they can’t remember what 8 x 6 is!

When your child is really anxious, the frontal lobe of their brain essentially shuts off and freezes. The frontal lobe is responsible for thinking critically and processing problem solving. After the frontal lobe shuts off, the medulla takes over and emits all the emotions like stress and anxiety. When the frontal lobe isn’t functioning to its full capacity, that’s when it feels like information can’t be processed correctly.

There’s a great study that shows the difference between kids with test anxiety vs. kids without test anxiety when taking an exam. Before a test in the experiment, each student wrote down all of their anxieties on a piece of paper. They wrote things like, “Well, if I don’t get an 85% on this Math test, I won’t get a 90% for the quarter and I won’t get into the college I really want to.” Or they wrote, “My dad’s going to be so mad at me if I don’t get a B.” They scribbled down all of their biggest fears before taking the test, and the researcher found that when that happened, the students performed just as well as their non-anxious peers! Essentially, when you get out all of the anxieties and nerves beforehand, your brain functions much more efficiently.

It’s also important to know that sometimes test anxiety is actually the result of poor preparation. I’ve had a lot of kids tell me over the years, “You know, Mrs. Dolin, math is one of those subjects that you either know or you don’t know. You just can’t study for Math.” And that’s completely untrue! In fact, taking the study guide and reworking those problems two or three times to review is a great way to keep up your math skills.

 

The New Wave of Learning Math

Parents often say that they can’t help their kids with math the way that they thought they could and that’s because math is taught very differently than it was 20 or 30 years ago! In fact, there’s a lot less focus on rote memorization and a lot more focus on problem solving. When we learn to do a computation, like 13 times 4, we just knew how to do it because we memorized the steps. Now, kids are learning why they start with the one’s column first and why they regroup instead of carrying the number over.

You have 3 options when your kid is stuck with math: 1) You can just say, “this is how you do it”, and show them the way that you learned. Inevitably, they’ll say, “Well, that’s not how my teacher does it.”  2) You can say, “You know what? I already went to fifth grade. This is your homework, not mine. You figure it out,” but then your child probably won’t feel supported. 3) You can say, “Are there any examples in your book? Do you have any similar problems in your notes?” This is probably the best option because you’re not doing their homework for them, but you’re showing them how to find solutions on their own. This helps build independence and helps in the long-run!

 

Consider a Tutor Before Frustration Occurs

Just because you aced math in college doesn’t mean you’re a great math tutor.  I remember once, when I was in eighth grade and I was taking Algebra, and my father, the engineer, came into my room to help with math homework. Because he knew I was struggling, he offered to help me. Now, I really wanted the help, but I didn’t necessarily want it from him, but I agreed. We sat down and worked through an order of operations problem, he said the answer is negative and I said, “No dad, it’s positive, it’s positive because before there are parentheses here” and we got into a huge argument about whether the number was negative or positive!

The more we argued, the angrier he got until he stood up from the table and grabbed the math textbook. I shot up from my seat as he threw it at the wall behind me and pages flew everywhere! My mom rushed in and said, “That’s enough. I’m going to get somebody to help Ann.” Ultimately, that was such a great decision on my mom’s part because although my father wanted to help me and he was experienced in the subject, he just wasn’t the right teacher for me.

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Even if you or your spouse excel at a subject, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the best teacher. If your child’s school has office hours or an opportunity for them to go before school, or attend a homework club, take advantage of it. Encourage your child to go ask for help. Kids don’t always ask for help unless they have assistance from their parents. Work with a tutor who specializes in one-to-one tutoring so they can give their undivided attention and build the math confidence and grades.

 

5 Creative Ways to Learn Outside the Classroom

2c733448-9022-4655-8b7c-6c5048515a9bResearch shows that students lose up to 2.5 months in language arts and a whopping 3 months in math! But as a parent, how do you avoid a fight when your kid doesn’t want to complete an academic workbook? Instead of sitting your kid at the kitchen table with the workbook, read below for five creative ways to keep your kids engaged in learning.

Take advantage of your local public library

If your kid is a speedy reader, they’ll love checking out as many books as they want at the library. There are thousands of books for kids of all ages with so many topics to keep them engaged and learning. Even better, most public libraries have discussion groups or summer activities for students to prepare them for school. Let your child get their own library card! Depending on where you live, most cards are free or have a small purchasing fee. They’ll be so excited to show it off to their friends.

Experiment with science kits

Go to your local craft store and pick up some science kits. Many stores have rocket science kits, crystal growing kits, or chemistry kits. Your child will have fun making crazy and cool gadgets and forget they’re actually learning! You can find some here.

Improve math with sales!

Sales are a great way to practice math skills. You can make a lemonade stand in your neighborhood and count the number of buyers, lemonade packets, cups sold, and more. Those who are reluctant to practice math won’t even realize they’re learning. You can also do this with yard sales.

Make a keepsake item

To help with writing, encourage your child to start a scrapbook. They can cut out pictures from magazines, newspapers, or the internet. Have them write captions for pictures and describe keepsake items in the scrapbook. For older students, a blog or journal is a fun alternative. Some blog sites are even mobile-friendly or have apps to download. Some to check out are WordPress or Tumblr. They can add pictures, music, or videos.

Find history in local exhibits

If you live near museums, create scavenger hunts for your child! This is fun for kids of elementary, middle, or high school age. Pick a museum they would love to visit, then map out what kind of exhibits there are. Make a list of items to see and check them off when you visit them. To make it more challenging, find questions about the exhibit. If you’re visiting an art museum, ask your child who the artist was. If they get the artist correct, they get a point. You could even begin in the gift shop first, pick out an item, and then try to find it in the museum.

Have questions or want to know how I can help? Contact me at [email protected]

 

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Prevent The Summer Slide – How to Make Learning Fun without Kids Even Knowing They’re Learning

Today I had the pleasure of being interviewed for a segment on WTOP radio.

You can listen to the clip below.

 

Many parents and kids alike have grand plans of taking a break from learning over the summer to recharge, but studies show that this isn’t always a good idea. To read the transcript, scroll below!

Do kids really need to keep practicing academic skills over the summer? Don’t they need a break?

Kids lose about 2.5 months of progress in language arts and up to 3 months in math, so it’s important to keep them practicing academic skills, but you don’t need to go overboard.  There can absolutely be a balance between learning and play.

How do you find that balance?

There are actually lots of things parents can do to “disguise” learning. If your child is learning multiplication or decimals, put him in charge of figuring the tip every time you go out to eat this summer. And when you’re shopping, he can also estimate the sales tax on the items you buy.

Another way to squeeze in learning is good old fashioned board games. Consider a family game night once a week where your child gets to pick the game. Games like PayDay, Connect4 and Scrabble are fantastic ways to practice skills and have a lot of fun!

Sometimes students have summer homework assigned by teachers. How do you get your child started early, to prevent procrastination come August?

Waiting until the last week of August to write an essay, finish a math packet, or read a book puts stress on everyone. A good idea is to sit down with your child at the beginning of the summer and find out exactly what he has to do. If he has a book to read, discuss a start date of when he’ll begin reading, and then the dates at which he needs to be to be about a 1/3, and then 2/3 of the way through. Jot these milestones down on a calendar that’s in a public place, such as the refrigerator.

shutterstock_232499257Outside of school assignments, shouldn’t kids be reading for pleasure?

Yes, absolutely, but sometimes as parents, we turn reading into a power struggle. When parents say things like, “Go up to your room to read now” reading becomes a punitive task, which really don’t work well with reluctant readers. For young children, try reading with your child. You read a page, she reads a page.  And if you have a really reluctant reader, you read two pages, and she reads one.

I also like the idea of getting the whole family in on the action. You can set aside 20 minutes a few nights out of the week where everyone sits down to read – could be a book, a magazine, or even the sports section of the morning paper. They material isn’t important, but the act of relaxing and reading is what counts.

Speaking of reading, what’s a hot book for kids this summer?

Check out Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. Great book for kids of all ages, especially middle schoolers!

Have a great summer!

Ann Dolin

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Academic Spring Fever? Here’s Help

shutterstock_148535669With the warm spring weather arriving, daylight savings time in effect, and only a few months of school remaining, it’s not uncommon for kids to lose motivation.  What should you do if your child has a bad case of academic spring fever?

I’ve put together a quick Q&A of questions parents commonly ask during my school presentations that I hope will help you figure out how to best help your child.

My child doesn’t seem to care nearly as much as he did at the beginning of the year. What is the first step in battling spring fever?

It’s important to realize that motivation will ebb and flow during the school year, and this is a time when students are more focused in counting the days until summer than studying; parents are losing steam as well.

One thing you can do is re-establish old routines that may have worked well at the beginning of the school year.  For example, maybe you had a set bedtime for your child or a time at which she started homework. If routines have gone by the wayside, it’s not too late to put them back in place. They foster a sense of order and can greatly reduce procrastination.

How do you get your child to actually follow through?

I’m a big fan of putting things in writing. A visual cue is almost always superior to a verbal one. This could be as simple as a checklist by the door or an evening routine posted on the refrigerator. Visual reminders reduce the chance that what you say goes in one ear and out the other.

Just yesterday, I had a parent say to me, “I felt like I was nagging my son too much, so I put our agreement in writing.  We agreed that after dinner, his backpack has to be ready by the door for the next day, and then he get gets to play video games for an hour. The TV has to be off by 8.”  She said, “Just posting that information on the refrigerator has taken the emotion out of the request. Things have been a lot better the last few weeks.”

My daughter has a number of upcoming exams. How do I motivate her to study?

This time of year, kids are more distracted than ever and they have a lot going on, from spring sports to end-of-the-year banquets. They’re also more likely to be distracted by social media.

When it comes time to studying, you really have to limit their choices. There needs to be a time in the evening when they don’t have to decide between the lure of an electronic screen and studying. Set up a routine for a block of time, say 8:00 pm to 8:45 pm, where social media is turned off and everyone in the family is device free. This allows uninterrupted time to study.

What about those end-of-year, long-term projects, research papers, and book reports?

I like to ask students two main questions: what do you have that’s coming due, and when will you do it? You can phrase it as, “If I see you have a plan, that will make me feel better and I will know that you have it under control.” Then ask, “When should we check in with each other?” This technique puts it on the child and provides accountability.

It seems like no matter how much I try to help, my kids and I end up in a battle, especially when it comes to math.

When your child is stuck, you really have three choices. You can:

  • Tell him to buck up
  • Show him how to do the problem
  • Say to your child “Do you have notes on this? Where do you think you can find the information? Have you done a problem similar to this?”

The latter is the best approach because it enables the child to become an independent learner, a skill that’s not just for this year, but for many years to come.

My child is consistently inconsistent. Sometimes he does the work and he’s on top of things, and other times when I don’t check up on him, everything falls apart.

No parent wants the role of “homework police,” but when your child has many missing assignments, you must get involved.

First, take time to email the teachers in the classes your child isn’t turning in work. Find out if there’s an opportunity for the assignments to be written down at the end of class. So often, kids don’t record their work and simply cannot remember everything that needs to be done. Also, determine how the teacher reports homework. If he or she religiously posts to Blackboard or your school’s homework portal, that’s a huge plus. There is a small cohort of students who will never use their assignment book, no matter how much they’re encouraged. If not, recording homework on their phone (photos of the assignment work great) or using the homework portal is the next best thing.

Our tutors often tell their students that they actually shouldn’t start off doing homework such as math, English, science, or any other subject. Their first subject should be “organization.” That means, make a list of all the work that has to be done that day. Spending five minutes organizing a “to do” list can actually save lots of time.

If your child doesn’t clearly understand what needs to be done, you will need to step in. Have him or her list the assignments and then begin tackling the first one. Be sure your child knows what to do—maybe even watch him do the first problem or question, and then walk away. Check in from time to time, but allow your child to be independent while doing homework. A little upfront oversight in creating the “to do” list can go a long way with consistently inconsistent kids.

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4 Study Tips for Elementary Math & Science

frustratedboyStudying for math and science can be a stumbling block for some elementary students.  Trying to keep numbers, diagrams, and science terms straight in your head sometimes overwhelms study sessions and students (and parents!) might shut down.

Helping your child study effectively for math and science is a vitally important skill and worth developing early on so that she can carry it with her as she moves into STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—subjects in high school.

You can make a difference in your child’s math and science performance now and in the future by trying some of the following tips.

1. Play “Beat the Clock”

Print out math or science facts that need to be memorized for an upcoming test from websites such as superkids.com. Sites like this one allow the selection of specific facts such as multiplying with fours or addition of twos only. Practicing one fact pattern at a time leads to quicker mastery.

Jot down the time it takes your child to work through the page. During the next practice session, set the timer for that amount of time and say, “I bet you can’t beat the clock!” Keep decreasing the time as your child progresses to automaticity.

2. Changing numbers

Because math and science are taught differently now than they used to be, sometimes parents don’t know exactly how to instruct their kids on solving problems the way they are taught in school.

But if you want to help your student practice, the best thing you can do is to take a math problem from your kid’s notebook or textbook and change the numbers in the problem.  If you just change the numbers, you and your child can refer to his class notes to make sure he can solve it in the exact same way.

To learn more about the best ways to help your kids with homework, check out this blog about Common Core math.

3. Use a dry erase board with many colors

To practice for an upcoming math test, write a few math problems on a small dry erase board. Kids love using dry erase boards and many prefer them over traditional pencil and paper.

Try out different color markers, too. Color increases attention, so don’t be afraid of using bold hues.  Putting each part of the equation or graph in different colors helps students follow along with very long solving procedures.

Research shows that kids with ADHD especially benefit from having the signs in math problems stand out in a different color. This helps with their attention and memorization.

4. Draw a picture

Kids have a tendency to want to solve problems in their heads.  By drawing a picture, it makes your child lay out all the steps visually, which allows her to avoid mistakes and often get the right answer.

This technique doesn’t work with all math problems though.  It’s best for word problems, anything to do with geometry, and certain fractions that can be drawn out.

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