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.