Kids hate math for many different reasons. Some find it too hard, others find it overwhelming, and still others are so bored by it that they can hardly bring themselves to complete their assignments.
But whatever the reason, nothing ruins a day (and mom’s nerves) like fighting about math. The constant arguing, whining, and crying spill over beyond math time and make the whole day miserable.
Quick fixes like rewards and sticker charts sometimes make math tolerable for a few days. But, before long, the math battles begin all over again. No wonder some families end up doing less and less math at home in an effort to keep the peace—but with the constant worry that they’re not preparing their child adequately for the future.
Not all kids are going to adore math, but if math is a never-ending struggle at your house, these strategies will help stop the math fights and make math time more tolerable—for both you and your child:
Find the Goldilocks challenge level
Think about a time when you were deeply engaged in your learning: it may have been discussing a great book with a friend, learning how to crochet from your grandmother, or mastering a piece on the piano. But whatever it was, one of the reasons you likely found it so satisfying was that you were working at your Goldilocks challenge level: not too easy, not too hard, but juuust right.
Finding the right level of challenge is key to helping kids enjoy math, too. There’s no satisfaction in whizzing through easy busywork problems, but it’s very frustrating to plug away at problems that are too hard.
When kids are frustrated with math, many parents immediately think about closing the textbook. That may indeed be a good decision—but there are other ways to adjust the difficulty level, too. Here are some ways to find the Goldilocks difficulty level for your child:
Do fewer problems
If your child is exhausted or overwhelmed by the length of their assignments, shorten them. Your child doesn’t have to do every problem if it’s going to make him or her miserable. Skip problems that are too easy, work on just the odds or evens, or simply pick out the problems that your child most needs to work on.
Do more practice and review
While some kids need to do fewer problems in order to not hate math, other children may actually need to do more. If your child is having trouble retaining what he’s already learned, go back and make sure those skills are sharp before moving on.
Every step in math builds on each other, and it’s very frustrating to kids to keep moving forward when they’re missing some of the building blocks. Make sure your child has the math facts mastered and basic skills solid before you move onto more complex work.
Set a timer
If your child has a short attention span, but needs a lot of practice in math, you can make math less difficult for her by breaking assignments into smaller chunks. Set a timer and ask your child to do quality work for a very short time. Kids are often amazed at how much they can get done when they just put their head down and get to work for 15 minutes. And, make sure to keep your expectations realistic, especially for little ones: kindergartners and first-graders often can only focus on for five to ten minutes at a time.
Require less writing
Actual physical pain makes anything a lot less enjoyable. Younger children who have already done writing, spelling, and copywork may not have the stamina left for copying problems from a textbook or writing out many answers. If your child has trouble with this, don’t require them to copy from a textbook. Or, allow your child to answer as many problems orally as possible. If you are working out of a textbook you own, allow your child to (gasp!) write directly in the textbook. It costs a little extra, but eliminating math battles is well worth it.
Another way to make writing in math less arduous is to solve problems together on a mini whiteboard first. It’s much easier for kids to write on a whiteboard than with a pencil on paper, since they don’t have to concentrate so much on keeping their numbers neat and properly-sized. Plus, working problems together on a whiteboard is also a great solution for kids whose attention tends to wander if you stick them in a room by themselves with a math assignment.
Support and mentor your math learner
When I was in college, I was struggling in one of my math classes. After years of feeling capable and confident in math, I was shaken and doubting myself when I went to my professor’s office hours for help. Instead of helping me understand what I was doing wrong or explaining the material in a new way, he gave me some of the most unhelpful advice I’ve ever received: stare at the problems longer.
Needless to say, that class was not a satisfying learning experience. (I ended up struggling along by myself and barely passing—and resolving that when I was a math teacher, I would be more helpful!) If you’re not a fan of math yourself, you probably have a similar story. But if we want our kids not to hate math, it’s essential that we support and mentor them in their learning.
Model a positive attitude toward math yourself
If you don’t like math yourself, I know it can be hard to fake a positive attitude. But we parents set the tone for our homes. When we’re dragging, everyone’s dragging. When we’re energized and positive, the kids are much more likely to be, too.
If you don’t like math and find it hard to muster a positive attitude, simply try to be neutral. Don’t talk negatively about math, and try to put a smile on your face when you announce that it’s math time. Even a little bit of positivity can go a long way.
Teach, don’t just assign
There are two huge drawbacks to sending your children off to work on math by themselves.
First, kids associate math with banishment and not getting mom or dad’s attention until they have a problem. This actually makes some kids more likely to act up, since it’s the only way to get mom or dad’s attention during math time. And for our extroverted kids, it’s hard for them to like a subject that they always have to do by themselves.
Second, when kids do math on their own, they’re often able to limp along and get most answers right. But are they really reading the lesson, thinking it through, and internalizing it? Do they really understand what they read and did? Unless you have a very studious and responsible student, a child who does math on her own is usually missing out on the deeper understanding that comes from working through the lesson with a parent. Mentoring your independent math learner doesn’t have to take a long time each day, but even five minutes will go a long way to helping your child feel supported and encouraged in their math studies.
Use a teacher’s guide
Those teacher’s guides are a wealth of useful information. Most will help you understand the main objective of the lesson and show you some ways to demonstrate the concept. Some will even provide games and activities to reinforce what your child is learning and add some fun to your math time. Even if you don’t do every activity they recommend, they’ll help you teach math well.
Grow your own math skills
You don’t have to be a math whiz to help your child with math, but it’s hard to guide what we don’t understand ourselves. If math was always a difficult subject for you, there are a ton of good resources out there to help you learn to teach math with confidence.
If you like to learn by reading, I’ve put together a book list of my favorite books for moms who teach math. Or, if your prefer videos, check out my video courses at the Well-Educated Mind Academy on elementary arithmetic.
Help your child feel a sense of accomplishment
Imagine if you were told you had to learn to crochet a scarf—but that you would be working on crocheting the same scarf, day after day, lesson after lesson, for the next 12 years! That’s how math feels for many kids. Helping your child feel a sense of accomplishment in math prevents the daily homework struggle from feeling like unending drudgery.
Teach your child both how to do math and why it works
It feels good to get answers right, but working through procedures you don’t understand—over and over, day in and day out—doesn’t provide much of a feeling of satisfaction. Kids enjoy learning math more when they understand what they’re doing and get to have those satisfying aha-moments when a concept suddenly clicks.
Encourage your child to think about what she’s doing and why. Help her see the connections between what she’s learning and what she already knows. And use manipulatives to help make new concepts concrete and visual. When kids learn math with understanding, they not only get more problems right, but they also feel a greater sense of pride and satisfaction in their math learning.
Go over completed assignments together
Don’t just correct math on your own after child has gone to play. Instead, make time to go over completed assignments together. Notice all the correct answers first, then analyze the incorrect answers with your child. Ask your child to correct any careless mistakes and work together on any problems your child had trouble with. If you discover that your child didn’t understand the concept well, make a note to tackle it again the next day.
Looking over the work together helps your child feel ownership of his learning and a greater sense of responsibility. Plus, you show your child that learning from mistakes is part of the learning process. This is especially important for math-anxious kids: knowing that it’s okay to make mistakes can help them take a deep breath and relax as they do their math assignments, without the pressure to be perfect.
Celebrate your child’s progress
When your child finishes a unit, go back through the unit with your child and talk about the new skills your child has mastered. When you’re working on math facts, make a chart of the facts your child needs to learn and have her cross them the ones that she has down pat. And when your child accomplishes something especially hard, like mastering the subtraction facts or long division, do something fun to celebrate!
There you have it: Simple ways ways to help make math more tolerable for your math-hating child. Pick one or two and give them a try in your own home. I hope that they’ll help make math a more satisfying learning experience for your child—and stop the daydreaming, tears, and tantrums as well!
KATE SNOW is a math educator on a mission to help parents raise kids who are capable and confident in math. With experience as a homeschool parent, classroom teacher, and curriculum writer, she holds a B.A. in Mathematics from Harvard University and an M.S. in Elementary Education from Walden University. Kate is the author the Math Facts That Stick series. For more information, please visit, www.kateshomeschoolmath.com.