Why Is My Child Struggling with Math? Here’s How to Help.

Math Fluency

Many children struggle with math at one point or another. While some may just have deficiencies in their math skills and require only more instruction and practice, others might need learning strategies to manage math better. 

You want to help, but the frustration and anxiety always seems to interfere. Not to mention the concepts aren’t as clear in your mind as they were a decade or two ago.

There are steps you can take at home to defuse math anxiety. Sometimes in-class support or skilled tutoring is required. How do you know whether your child is just stuck on a particular math concept or requires alternative methods and one-on-one support to succeed in math? 

Should I Bother? Why Is Math Important?

Math is the origin of all science and technology. In fact, the word “mathematics” is derived from Ancient Greek for “that which is learnt,” including everything deemed “study” and “science.”

Over time, math has become defined more as the art of numbers. Its importance as a foundation for science, engineering, technology, and business can not be overstated. As the world becomes increasingly digitized, career opportunities abound for those skilled in math.

Even if you’re relatively sure your child isn’t headed for a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) you’ll want to be sure they achieve a basic level of math competence for life. Math is key to managing finances, cooking and baking, problem solving and basic tasks involved in many jobs and hobbies. 

In fact, learning math is just good for the brain! A 2015 study showed early math learning improved math outcomes straight into adolescence. Study author Tanya Evans states:

“Children show substantial individual differences in math abilities and ease of math learning. Early numerical abilities provide the foundation for future academic and professional success in an increasingly technological society. Understanding the early identification of poor math skills has therefore taken on great significance.”

Whatever your child’s future brings, math will help them tackle challenges and be self-sufficient and successful.

What Makes Math So Hard to Learn?

When math is taught well and at a pace that matches a child’s level of understanding, math is no more difficult to learn than any other system or academic subject. Large class sizes and administrative challenges can mean less one-on-one support for children who need a bit of extra instruction on a particular concept. Typically, a math concept is introduced and a few practice questions are done together in class. If your child’s teacher doesn’t become aware that they haven’t grasped the concept, it can snowball into further confusion as more steps and concepts are layered on over time.

Some children experience exceptional anxiety around learning math. This “math anxiety” has been studied in children as young as grade one and afflicts as many as 1 in 2 learners. It’s known that children with math anxiety believe they are not proficient with math and face heightened anxiety before and during math tasks.

Further, math anxiety is associated with lower math abilities, poor performance in math tasks and success in STEM careers. If your child is anxious, upset, angry or in tears frequently about math struggles, addressing their anxiety is the first step in helping them make peace with math.

How Can I Help My Child with Math Anxiety?

Two causes of math anxiety have been proposed by researchers. The first is that a child who struggles with number sense in early childhood typically begins facing math anxiety when arithmetic is introduced in school. The second concept is more psycho-social, implying that a child has learned math anxiety from the attitudes and anxieties of their teachers. In essence, teachers who are less comfortable with math — and perhaps parents echoing this distaste or confusion at home — inadvertently pass on the idea that math is a source of anxiety.

It’s crucial that you take a calm approach to your child’s math endeavours and to assisting them at home. Research shows children with math anxiety use less of the problem-solving part of their brains because brain resources are being used in areas that produce anxiety. If you can help reduce their anxiety, you can improve their math success.

Keep Math Positive

Therapeutic tools like deep breathing, visualization, journaling and talking have all been shown to reduce math anxiety, just as they have been proven to work with anxiety of all types.

Encourage your child to talk about the way math makes them feel. Take two minutes to visualize together how that math homework session will go, how they will react calmly when faced with a challenge and what they will do if they need help. Practice a few minutes of deep breathing or a short, guided meditation at the outset of the homework time. 

Try incorporating math into everyday life in low-stress ways. Ask them to help you make change at the store, tell you the time or figure out how many plates are needed for dinner – whatever is at their level. When math can provide a fun context or solve a seemingly non-math problem, express it positively and show them how wonderful math can be. For example, “Let’s use our math to figure out how many tablespoons of chocolate chips we need for these cookies!” Math games and online games can also help them practice basic arithmetic and associate math with fun.

Above all, when they begin to express anxiety or frustration, remain calm. Take a deep breath yourself. If you feel triggered or feel anxious yourself, it might be wise to end ths session and talk about how they’re feeling, instead. Consider reaching out to your child’s school for additional math support or contacting a qualified math tutor to help your child master the concepts at their own pace, with one-on-one attention and patience.

Does My Child Have a Math Learning Disability?

When math seems to be a constant source of frustration, you might wonder if your child is uniquely struggling with math. Do other families have this much crying about math, too?

Perhaps you’re concerned your child’s math skills and number sense are lagging behind generally. As more complex concepts are introduced at school, you might wonder if your child has typical math skills for their age.

Some children may be suffering with dyscalculia and require personalized support for math at home and at school. People with dyscalculia struggle with math concepts generally, and research suggests the condition is brain-based, inherited and related to the condition of dyslexia. Many children with dyslexia also have dyscalculia, and it’s believed to be just as common, though less researched and understood at this time.

If your child struggles with basic concepts like quantity (more vs. less), number order, number sense, and arithmetic there are multi-sensory approaches that can help your child explore math in a way which makes more sense to them. Understand the signs of dyscalculia and speak with your child’s doctor and/or school if you believe they require testing and/or further help. 


Does your child have dyscalculia?

Have you discovered any resources or routines that help your child manage math anxiety or excel in math?


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