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Why Kids Struggle with Virtual Math

Math has gotten a bad rap for being the subject kids struggle with the most. It’s abstract, challenging, and cumulative. It’s also challenging to teach! If a teacher moves too slowly, some students will get bored and check out. If a teacher moves too quickly, other students can get overwhelmed and give up. In a traditional classroom, teachers can monitor the room for signs of confusion or overwhelm. But a virtual classroom makes it significantly harder for teachers to identify and assist students who need more help. This means it now falls on you to monitor your child’s progress and recognize when your child needs help. Many kids balk at their parents’ attempts to step in, so what are you to do? Read on to learn practical tips for helping your child succeed with virtual math without ruining your relationship along the way.

Monitor your child’s progress to know where they stand. Your child’s teacher can’t monitor your child’s participation in your class, but you can. Quietly peek your head in during virtual math class. Don’t say anything but observe what is going on. Is your child taking notes? Do they seem checked out when the teacher is giving instruction? Are they quick to get a snack or go to the bathroom in the middle of class? These are signs that the material is difficult for them.

If you see these signs of overwhelm, set up a time to talk to your child about what’s happening in a non-judgmental way. Don’t do it at a time when you’re both frustrated. Instead, set up an appointment. You might say, “Hey, Susan, can we talk about your math later tonight? How does 7:30 work for you?” That sets a collaborative atmosphere instead of an adversarial one.

Know what to say (and what not to say). Before you sit down and talk with your child, have a plan for what you’ll say - because, unfortunately, many of the things you instinctively say only make things worse! For example, if you say, “Here, let me show you how to do it” your child will likely respond, “Mom, that’s not how you do it! That’s not what my teacher said to do!” (And they’re probably right. The way you and I learned math is drastically different from today’s methods.) Or you might be tempted to say, “Listen, Susan, I already went to fifth grade. This is your homework, not mine. You need to do it on your own.” You may hope this encourages independence, but if your child genuinely needs help, this response can discourage them from coming to you when they’re struggling.

Instead, start by sharing what you’ve noticed. You might say, “I’ve noticed fractions are really hard.” And, this part’s important, stop there. Let your child respond. Simply stating your observations allows for a more collaborative conversation and opens the door for your child to share their frustrations about where they might need some help.

When you’ve identified an area of need, try asking your child openly, “Susan, do you have examples of this type of problem? Do you have notes, or is this explained online somewhere or in your book?” This is a better approach because it allows kids to be part of solving the problem, instead of you telling them how to do it or not helping at all. It enables you to achieve that happy medium where you can have your child look back for an example and try to solve it on their own with a bit of coaching from you, as needed.

As you speak with your child, choose empowerment over commiseration. Statements like, “Don’t worry, I was bad at math, too” or, “You’re just as smart as your sister, and she figured it out!” don’t help kids overcome their frustrations. Instead, focus on your child’s efforts (rather than their outcomes or intelligence) and offer specific praise. Affirmations like, “Oh, I like the way you wrote down the steps for that math problem” or, “I love how you worked through that even though it was tough!” can empower kids to keep at it, even when things get challenging.

See what support materials the teacher can provide. For math, in particular, I recommend asking for a class recording, class notes, or study guide. Class recordings are beneficial for kids of all ages because they can replay the instructional piece of the lesson, pause to write down the steps, and generally slow down to make sure they understand everything. Class notes can help students understand the steps to solving problems and serve as a reference when they’re feeling stuck during practice. And study guides often provide practice problems for students to work through.

If your child does get a study guide, you don’t want them to work through it once and say they’ve studied, which is what most kids automatically do. Instead, I recommend making three blank copies of it. First, your child will attempt to complete the first copy from memory. But when they’re stumped, they can look back at their notes to refresh themselves on the steps and keep going. The next day, they take the second copy and do it again. On the third day, they do the same thing with the third copy. By doing the same problems this way three days in a row, kids will refer to their notes less each time, gain confidence, and retain the steps/processes much better.

If your child doesn’t get a study guide from the teacher, they can use practice problems from class notes, their book, and online resources to build their own. Learning to make their own study guides will not only help with math class this year, but all of their subjects throughout high school and post-secondary education. It’s a win-win!

Know the signs that reveal when a child needs outside help. Most children wrestle with math concepts at some point or another, so how do you know when your child is struggling enough to need outside help?

Look for three signs:

1. The problem is chronic. If the difficulty has gone on longer for a week or two, it may be time to seek outside help. Remember, math is cumulative, so failure to get help with a critical skill now can make math that much harder in future grades.

2. Your child is frustrated and avoiding their math homework. Avoidance is a critical problem because it compounds a child’s struggles thanks to the ‘forgetting curve.’ The longer kids go between learning a skill and applying it, the more they’ll forget along the way. Regular (yes, daily!) practice helps kids avoid the forgetting curve and retain information. A tutor can help your child tackle the work promptly and frequently to improve their understanding and mastery of a skill. Plus, when frustration makes it difficult for your child to discuss the subject calmly, a tutor can cut through that tension and provide some needed support.

3. Their test grades are lower. Your child’s overall grade in a subject can be deceiving. They might be earning a B in math, and you’ll think, ‘Oh, a B. That’s great. Susan is doing really well.’ But take a closer look. They might be getting Cs on all of their tests, but those are balanced out by As on their homework, class participation, and some extra credit. This is a red flag. If your child gets Cs on tests, especially cumulative unit tests, they don’t understand the concept. With modern grade inflation, a C of today would likely have been an F when you and I were in school. This doesn’t mean you need to panic or shame your child for a C grade, but it does mean that recurring Cs on tests are a sign that it’s time for some extra help.

Ann Dolin, M.Ed., is the founder and president of Educational Connections, Inc., a tutoring, test prep, and consulting company. In her award-winning book, Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework, Dolin offers proven solutions to help the six key types of students who struggle with homework. Numerous examples and easy-to-implement, fun tips will help make homework less of a chore. As seen on ectutoring.com. Learn more at ectutoring.com. 

 




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