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Mathematics Strategies

Home and School Collaboration
Parents and Teachers Communicating
Talking with Children about their Strengths and Weaknesses

Home and School Collaboration

Living with or teaching a child who has difficulty thinking with numbers can be an emotionally charged experience. Frustration and confusion can complicate the conversation between parents and teachers about what to do. Respect for each other and open communication can reduce tension and enable parents and teachers to benefit from each other’s expertise and knowledge of the child from different perspectives. Working together, parents, teachers, and the children themselves can inform one another about how best to address the child’s needs.

Parents and Teachers Communicating

When you suspect your child is struggling with mathematics, schedule a parent-teacher meeting to share information about your child. The following “talking points” can help structure the discussion.

  • Identify and discuss your child’s strengths and interests. How can they be used to enhance his or her math skills and motivation to complete math assignments?
  • Clarify the instructional program. What mathematics program or textbook does the class use? Discuss how that approach is working for the child. Examine and evaluate accommodations, such as extra time or a smaller number of test or homework problems.
  • Acknowledge emotional reactions to the situation. Discuss how children who experience frustration or failure may become so fearful that they develop math anxiety. Some children may then turn their energy to acting out or may withdraw from math tasks. Share strategies that have worked in the classroom and at home to help your child cope.
  • Discuss appropriate next steps. Establish a plan for ongoing discussion and problem solving. Should specialists be consulted? How can you best advocate for the child?

When a problem with math has been specified:

  • Learn more about the process of thinking with numbers from other experts, reference books, and Web sites. See the Resources section of this site to get started.
  • Seek assistance from experienced parents, professional organizations, and support groups.
  • Request that the school’s special education teacher or learning specialist observe your child and consult with you about strategies to use in the classroom and at home.
  • Investigate the availability of professional help from math tutors or other math specialists.

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Talking with Children about their Strengths and Weaknesses

Moments of frustration as well as pride are common for children who struggle with math and for the adults who work with them. Some children give up and see themselves as failures; others exhibit behavior complications that relate to their difficulties with math.

To help children learn to clarify and specify their differences, All Kinds of Minds uses a process called demystification. Through open discussion with supportive adults, children understand that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. This process creates a shared sense of optimism that the child and adult are working toward a common goal and that learning problems can be successfully managed. The following suggestions can help as parents, teachers, and other specialists work together to demystify children’s difficulties with math.

  • Eliminate any stigma. Empathy can reduce your child’s frustration and anxiety about her math difficulties. Emphasize that no one is to blame and that you know she often need to work harder than others to think with numbers. Explain that everyone learns differently. Reassure your child that you will help her find ways that work for her. Share a story about how you handled a learning difficulty or an embarrassing mistake in which your math weaknesses were the culprit.
  • Discuss strengths and interests. Help your child find his strengths. Use concrete examples, but avoid false praise. You might tell a child who seems to make friends quickly, “You’re a real people person.” Value children’s interests. To a child who enjoys drawing, you might say, “Try drawing pictures of math problems as you solve them.” Identify books, videos, Web sites, or places in the community that can help your child build on strengths and interests.
  • Discuss areas of weakness. Use plain language to explain what aspect of math learning is difficult for your child. For example, you might say, “You may have difficulty completing a multi-step math problem not because you don’t know your math facts, but because it is hard for you to remember the procedures for completing the problem.”
  • Emphasize optimism. Help your child realize that he can improve – he can work on his weaknesses and make his strengths stronger. Point out future possibilities for success given his current strengths. Help your child build a sense of control over his learning by encouraging him to be accountable for his own progress. For example, a child who has difficulty remembering multiple steps in solving a math problem can learn to use subvocalization strategies to organize and guide his or her effort.
  • Teach explicit meta-cognitive strategies when needed. In other words, help your child think about thinking. For some students, a teacher will need to provide direct instruction to help children think about their approach (including previewing), pursue facts, and self-monitor. Other students may need strategies to help check the precision or the reasonableness of their answers. Remember that explaining meta-cognitive approaches only once won’t be sufficient for some students. They may need repeated instruction and practice in how to apply these strategies.
  • Identify an ally. Help your child locate a mentor – a favorite teacher, a teacher’s aide, or a neighbor – who will work with and support her. Explain to your child that she can help herself by sharing with others how she learns best. Older children can explain the strategies that work for them, while younger ones may need adult support. Encourage your child to be an active partner with her allies.
  • Protect from humiliation. Help your child strengthen self-esteem and maintain pride by protecting him from public humiliation, especially in relation to his learning differences. Always avoid criticizing your child in public and protect him from embarrassment in front of siblings and classmates. For example, ask your child’s teacher to refrain from asking your child to solve math problems in front of his classmates at the chalkboard. Downplay confrontational or competitive aspects of mathematics, particularly those that create anxiety such as speed drills. Work with your child’s teacher to explore alternate ways of covering and assessing these skills.

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Strategy Tips:

  • Decide which strategies to try by observing the child and identifying the ways in which he or she learns best.
  • Limit yourself to 1-3 strategies to try first.
  • It may take several attempts to see positive results from one strategy. Don’t give up too soon.
  • If the first few strategies you try do not improve the child’s skills, try others.
  • Most of these strategies can be adapted for use with different age groups.


General Strategies

  • Maintain consistency and communication across school and home settings. For example, if a tutor explains math concepts in one way, the classroom teacher takes another approach, and parents yet a third, this may compound problems rather than solve them. Communicate regularly to make sure you are all teaching the same approach and using the same language.
  • Practice choosing strategies for math word problems. Give your child problems that have the numbers blanked out in some way. Ask him to read the problem, identify the patterns, and then describe what procedure(s) he would use to solve it.
  • Teach basic concepts using concrete objects. Let your child explore number concepts by adding and subtracting objects in the room. For example, add the legs of a chair to find the sum of 1+1+1+1 or subtract 5 crayons from a box or 64 to find the answer to 64-5. Move from concrete materials to pictorial representations (e.g., pictures of apples) to numbers (abstract representations).
  • Provide specialized materials. To help your child organize her calculations, have her use graph paper (or lined paper turned sideways) to keep numbers in columns. Encourage the use of scrap paper to keep work neat, highlighters for underlining key words and numbers, and manipulatives such as Cuisenaire rods, base-ten blocks, or fraction bars.
  • Make your expectations explicit. . Explain to your child the procedures you would like him to use when solving a problem, and model each procedure for him. Have your child then explain to you what he is expected to do. Some students benefit by having a math notebook filled with examples of completed problems to which they can refer if they become overwhelmed or confused.
  • Provide opportunities to connect mathematical concepts to familiar situations. For example, when introducing measurement concepts, have your child measure the height of family members or the weight of his book bags when empty and when full. Ask your child to estimate the measurements (e.g., guessing how much taller the refrigerator is than the stove) before solving the problem. Point out how math is used in everyday life, such as when examining bus schedules or filling out catalogue order forms.
  • Help your child apply math concepts to new situations. Show your child how to use percentages to understand the price of a jacket on sale at the mall or the amount of allowance spent on snacks.

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Memory Strategies

  • Provide the technology tools needed for problem solving. Encourage your child to think mathematically, even if she has not mastered basic skills. For example, let her use computer spreadsheet programs and calculators when the goal of the math activity is to develop problem-solving skills as opposed to calculation skills.
  • Play games. Create board and dice games to practice basic addition, subtraction, and multiplication facts.
  • Teach basic math facts. Put a few unknown facts (e.g., 8 x 8) on index cards. Put strategies for remembering on the back of the cards. Cards can be put on notebook rings. Add new facts as previous ones are learned. Routinely conduct cumulative reviews of skills and knowledge to help your child become automatic with math facts.
  • Use rule books. Ask your child to keep a notebook in which he writes math rules in his own words. Encourage your child to use rule books during classroom or home assignments by looking up the rule in the book and talking about it. A rule book could have a math vocabulary section and a strategy section for recording “tricks” that help with the operations.
  • Teach subvocalization as a strategy. Show your child how to quietly repeat sequences (such as numbers and procedures) under her breath while working. Practice the strategy by giving her a sequence of numbers or directions and having her quietly repeat them back to you.
  • Practice subskills. Help your child recall math subskills (like multiplication) more automatically with the use of flashcards and drills. Play a game in which you quiz your child about math facts and record how many he answers correctly. To build motivation, have your child record his own progress each day. Together, review progress periodically.
  • Teach math in more than one mode. Children respond well when math is taught in a variety of ways – visually (such as demonstration), verbally (such as using oral explanations), and experientially (such as setting up a pretend store) – so that they have an opportunity to process and use math information in multiple ways.
  • Collect examples of math problems that have been solved correctly. Have your child label each problem for the basic functions involved (e.g., “need to divide”). Your child might use this reference to learn how to better recognize patterns in problems (i.e., how problems may be similar despite different numbers and information) and recall the correct procedures for solving them.
  • Review patterns. Use flash cards to review patterns, such as key words that provide clues to the operation of a word problem or geometric patterns or shapes within complex visual designs.

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Language Strategies

  • Focus on the information provided in word problems. Have your child separate the necessary information for solving the problem from unnecessary details.
  • Focus on key words. Create a “key word” chart to help your child determine whether to add, subtract, multiply, or divide to solve a math word problem. Entries might include phrases such as “all together” means +, “how many left” means -.
  • Teach mnemonic strategies for solving word problems. Choose strategies that suit your child’s learning style. One strategy is TIPS: Think (read and paraphrase), Information (what numbers and information do you need in order to solve the problem), Problem (write equation), Solve. Your child can create a reminder card to keep on his desk or in his assignment notebook for quick reference to the strategy.
  • Make a math dictionary. Encourage your child to organize her own list of critical vocabulary words with definitions and examples for a personal math reference book.
  • Put problems into their own words. Teach your child to read for meaning when trying to identify the operation to use for solving a math problem. Have him explain the problem before trying to solve it.
  • Teach math vocabulary. Review the meaning of key words and phrases commonly used in mathematics problems, such as “all” or “total” in addition problems (“How much money did they spend in all?” “What was the total amount of the grocery bill?”). To help your child identify key terms in problems, ask her whether a problem requires a particular procedure, and have her underline the word or term that gave the answer away. Include new vocabulary in her rule book (see Memory).

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Attention Strategies

  • Preview assignments. Help your child to see the importance of thinking ahead before beginning a task. For example, cue him to ask, “Which math operations will I need next?”
  • Read math problems aloud. Help your child call her attention to the details of a math problem by reading each problem aloud before starting to work. For example, on the problem 16 – 9 =, she should say aloud “Sixteen take away nine equals.”
  • Self-monitor. During a task, show your child how to stop and assess how well he is progressing. For example, tell him, “Every 10 minutes you will need to stop and check your answers.” Teach your child to ask himself questions such as: “How is it going?” “Do I need to make changes?” “Does my answer make sense?” “Does my answer match my estimate?”
  • Help your child get started. Work through the mathematical problem with your child, verbalizing or demonstrating each step. Assist your child by doing the first problem together.
  • Prompt sign checking. If your child makes errors by not paying attention to math signs, remind her by saying, “Some of your answers are incorrect. What can you do to fix them?” She should be able to give several possibilities including “check to see if I used the right signs.”
  • Identify topics of interest to your child. Explore mathematical concepts in relation to motivating topics, such as building a skateboard ramp, tracking a satellite’s orbit around the earth, discovering how the pyramids were built, or saving money in an interest-bearing account. Ask your child to help you identify topics for mathematical problems.
  • Require think time. Provide positive reinforcement when your child takes time to think through an answer instead of acting on his first responses.
  • Isolate steps. Have your child focus on one step at a time. For example, provide mathematical activities in which she identifies only (1) what the question is asking her to find, (2) which information is necessary to answer the question, and (3) which operations should be used in solving the problem.
  • Complete each step. Explain to your child that even good problem solvers rarely skip steps when solving problems, though they may appear to.
  • Reduce the amount of data on a page. If your child becomes overwhelmed by large amounts of visual data on a page, reduce the number of math problems or the number of diagrams to interpret per page. Remove unessential visual features by folding the worksheet or using a blank sheet of paper as a coversheet.
  • Draw pictures to represent what is going on in a math problem. Encourage your child to draw representations of objects from the problem (e.g., three shirts or a 6-by-12 foot garden plot).
  • Practice estimating. Your child may benefit from estimating answers to math problems. Stress the real-life benefits of estimating and understanding what the correct answer might look like.
  • Provide time for checking work. Emphasize that completing math assignments is a process. Encourage your child to become comfortable reviewing his work, making changes, or asking questions when he is unsure of his answers.

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