When Math = Misery

Math. For some children, this is the one subject that makes them balk. One look at a sheet of math problems is enough to make a child cringe and groan. Oh, the dreaded math, which takes forever to complete! The dreaded math, the bane of a student’s existence and the test of a parent’s mettle! When math = misery day after day, how can we motivate our children to complete their assignments with a good attitude and in a timely manner?

Start by finding the root cause.

Here are five reasons why kids complain about math and what we can do to help:

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1.Your child is frustrated. Sometimes the math is just too hard. Maybe your student is not ready for a concept or the text is moving at a pace that is too fast. Usually you can tell if a concept is too hard if a child is getting a lot of wrong answers that are not due to careless mistakes. Or, they give you a blank or bewildered stare as you try to explain a mathematical concept to them.

If this is the case, the best thing you can do is to have your child repeat the lesson the next day. Sometimes a lesson needs to be repeated two or three times on order for a child to truly grasp it. If after three days your student still isn’t comprehending the concept, move onto another math topic or have your child spend a week or two or three reviewing previously learned material.

Word problems can be particularly odious for some kids. Children who struggle with word problems will benefit from completing these steps each for each problem:

  1. Read the problem out loud twice
  2. List the known facts
  3. List the unknown facts
  4. Draw a diagram of the problem
  5. Solve the problem
  6. Use estimation to see if the answer is reasonable

Once in a rare while, you may need to change the text or go down a level. And that’s just fine. Better for your child to be successful at easier math than fail at math he is not ready for. Sometime we need to go one step back to take two steps forward.

2. Your child is overwhelmed. Some children become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of math problems they need to complete. This usually happens after a good long break from school, but Monday Math Phobia is also a common occurrence. The math is not too hard; it’s just too much… or so thinks the overwhelmed child. “It’ll take me forever! I’ll never get it done!” he protests.

In this case, it is best not to present your child with a lot of math all at once. Break up the lesson/ assignment into smaller chunks. For example, give one to two pages in the morning, then the rest in the afternoon. My daughter likes to do a little math, then spelling, then more math, then writing, then more math, and so on.

Some younger children (K-3) find written work very tedious, so math that requires a lot of writing can be overwhelming. In this case, allow your child to begin his work by giving the answers orally while you write down the answers and then encourage him to finish independently. Sometimes it works better the other way around: “You write out the math for the first ten questions, and then you can tell me the answers for the rest.” Over time, slowly increase the amount of written work your child does to build his endurance.

Keep in mind that just because a text/workbook contains a certain amount of exercises, it doesn’t mean that’s the right amount for your child. Sometimes I have to make adjustments to an assignment. But whenever I reduce the amount, I make it clear to my kids that for every question they get wrong, they will need to do an additional one.

The overwhelmed child needs assurance that he can finish his math assignment in a timely manner if he really puts his mind to it. Smaller chunks of math, lots of encouragement, and the promise of a little treat should do the trick unless…

3. Your child is (also) testing the limits. All children, except perhaps the most docile ones, test limits. They want to know if you really mean what you say. If you tell a child he needs to complete all the exercises in the workbook, do you really mean all or most? And if a child badgers you enough, will you relent and require him to complete only some? Kids want to know.

The looser your limits, the more your kids will test them. Children need firm boundaries which give them a sense of stability and security. So we need to be firm but not rigid and sympathetic but not soft. We especially need to be consistent.

In terms of math assignments this means that the amount of math you give them (and the time it takes to complete) should be more or less consistent each day. And, you should insist that they complete the work, barring illness or special occasions . Once you start negotiating the amount of work you child needs to complete, the more they are going to challenge you. So be firm.

Once in a while, your child will have to tackle a killer unit, such as long division or finding the area of a complex figure. If you know the math assignment is going to be harder or longer than usual, adjust the assignment, but do so before you give it to him/her. If, in the middle of a long, frustrating lesson, you realize your child is just not grasping a concept, give him/her something easier to work on, but don’t let your child off the hook entirely. For example, if your child is really struggling with long division, you might say, “Let’s try this again tomorrow. For today, repeat last week’s homework on basic division.”

4. You Child is Seeking Attention. It’s also possible that your child is complaining about math just to get your attention. Children whose love language is service long for a little extra help as a sign of your love. I realized this when one of my sons insisted he needed help with a mental math assignment I knew he could do independently (He had done it independently several times on his own before). When I sat down beside him and began to “help” him, he was suddenly able to do it.

Other kids are not looking for help as a sign that you care; they’re just not in the mood to do math and prefer to stall. Misery loves company. If a child has to be miserable doing math, he/she may want everyone else to be miserable and distracted, too. If this is the case, the best thing to do is send the child off to a room by him/herself to work. My experience is that in the absence of an audience, such a child will buckle down and do the work, especially if you turn on a timer and throw in a consequence for not getting the math done by the time the timer goes off.

Children who are easily distracted and who love to distract others really need to work in a separate room or at a separate time. And they need strong motivators (both positive and negative) for completing their work in a timely manner. So be sure to offer lots of praise and special privileges for getting work done without complaints. And withdraw attention and privileges for poor behavior.

A child who looks for attention in the wrong way needs to get it in the right way. Some children really do need more attention than others and will do anything — even getting in trouble and annoying others — to get it. So if you’re sending your child to a separate room to get his work done, be sure to give him some good quality time during the day, making lots of eye contact and engaging in good conversation. Otherwise he’ll continue to look for attention the wrong way. And this may lead to:

5. Your child has become a habitual complainer. Unfortunately, it’s only too easy to develop the habit of complaining. A habitual math complainer whines about math without thinking and without cause. In this case, you need to find out why your child developed the habit of complaining about math in the first place (usually it’s one of previously listed causes) and address the underlying issue.

You also need to let your child know he has developed this bad habit and then help him change his attitude towards math. In our homeschool if habitual complaining starts to become a problem, I start keeping a tally of complaining. Three strikes results in the loss of a major privilege. At the same time, we talk about the privilege of getting a good education and the importance of developing the virtues of perseverance, industriousness, and cheerfulness. Even more, challenging math is something we can offer up for a special intention. It’s amazing how children can change their attitude as if they were flipping a switch. So encourage them to build the habit of having a good attitude even when work is challenging, offering their work up to God.

6. If you have tried to address all of the above scenerios and your child continues to gripe and groan over math, find another math teacher. Some children do better learning certain subjects from someone other than mom. With two of my boys, my husband took over the math lessons. Recently he’s also taken over my daughter’s math lessons. Not only was that a huge help and relief for me, but he promptly put an end to most of their complaining. If Dad can’t teach the math lessons for whatever reason, consider hiring a math tutor. I know one homeschool mom who said that hiring a math tutor made this year so much better than last.

So in a nutshell:

If your child is frustrated, ease up or slow down.

If your child is overwhelmed, break up the math into smaller chunks.

If your child is testing the limits, be firm.

If your child is seeking attention either give your student a little extra help or send him/her to a separate room.

If your child is a habitual complainer, work on developing a good attitude.

Get Dad to teach the math lessons or consider hiring a math tutor.

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