Why Kids Struggle with Virtual Math
By Ann K. Dolin M.Ed.
Math has always gotten a bad rap for being the subject kids struggle with the most. It’s abstract, challenging, and cumulative. (This means that each new skill builds on the last, so failure to master one unit can make future units even harder.) 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 at least 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 parents need to monitor their child’s progress and recognize when they need help.
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 go to the bathroom in the middle of class? These are signs that the material is difficult for them. If you see those 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.
Start by simply 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 them look back for an example and try to solve it on their own with just a little bit of coaching from you as needed.
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, we don’t just want them to work through it once and say they’ve studied, which is what most kids automatically do. Instead, we recommend making three blank copies of it. First, your child will attempt to complete the first copy just 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.
Even 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 their subjects throughout high school and college. Win, win!
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? I tell parents to 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 for 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. You’re doing really well.” But take a closer look. They might be getting Cs on all their tests, but those are balanced out by As on the 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, but it does mean that recurring Cs on tests are a sign that it’s time for some extra help.
With virtual math tutoring, your child can get the individualized attention they need, master critical skills, and build confidence in this foundational subject. #
Ann Dolan is the president of Educational Connections. For more information or to learn about your options, visit ectutoring.com.