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Stop the math madness for your tween

Even if you don't crunch numbers with your breakfast cereal, you can teach your middle-schooler how math fits into everyday life skills and ways to get homework done.

By GreatSchools Staff

Is an evening of math homework with your unhappy middle schooler about as appealing as listening to a symphony of fingernails drawn across a blackboard? 

Who can blame you? 

If math was never your favorite subject, diving back into the world of cryptic textbook instructions can raise those old familiar feelings: sweat prickling on your brow and the urge to run into your bedroom, slam the door, and play guitar badly. If you consider yourself a natural mathlete, helping a tween who doesn't share your enthusiasm for delectable pi or irresistable asymtotes can drive you to equal levels of distraction. It was all very well breaking down the steps of long division and simple fractions, but as the math gets more difficult so do the challenges of the parent just trying to help.

What can you do to rescue a middle-schooler muddled by math? The answers are as simple and elegant as the Pythagorean theorem, but implementing them is no less weighty.

Keep in touch with the teacher

Email makes staying in contact much easier than when you were in school. Don't be shy about letting your child's teacher know that you're concerned about her progress in math and whether she's falling behind. "Savvy, experienced teachers regularly communicate with parents," says Francis "Skip" Fennell, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Develop math-oriented traits

To succeed in math and college-level classes, your child needs to take responsibility for his education and learn to persevere when tasks are time-consuming and complicated. He can start now by:

  • Working independently
  • Reviewing and correcting his own work
  • Using available resources — class time, tutoring, study groups — and seeking help when necessary
  • Trying a variety of approaches to solve a multi-step problem

"Plenty of faculty have told me that if their students came in with these attributes, they could teach them math," says Bill Moore, director of the Transition Mathematics Project, a private-public partnership in Washington state that is working to make sure students are prepared for the transition from K-12 to college math. The project has developed a list of college-readiness math standards, which includes student attributes. (To see this PDF file, you'll need Adobe Acrobat Reader, which you can download here.)

Professor W. Stephen Wilson, who teaches freshman calculus at Johns Hopkins University, says that the ability to pick up a math textbook and learn independently from it is essential: "I have 150 students. There is no one-on-one here. If students don't learn to read a math textbook after a month of school, they're lost."

Look into tutoring

Talk to the teacher, counselor, or principal if your child is struggling. Ask about after-school or community tutoring options. Or get together with other families and share the costs of hiring a private tutor who can supplement classroom instruction. Don't delay in hopes that the problem will resolve itself. Math is cumulative, and the further behind your student falls, the more discouraging it will be for him to try to catch up.

Comments from readers

"Yeah, none of my children should ever be struggling. If the teacher is teaching right, and we are helping the right way, and our child is actually learning, there should be no room for struggling to squeeze into the child's education. "
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"As a math teacher, I totally agree with the writer's comments about the importance of the parent's attitude and comments. I too have asked parents NOT to say "I was never good at math", but to share their candid, personal stories. An honest "I didn't have a lot of success with math until I learned to....(fill in blank with "ask questions in class"..."organize my notebook well"..."do my math HW first before I got tired" etc.) A little parental candor can start to open the door for good conversations throughtout the important middle school years. "
"No Child Left Behind = ALL CHILDREN BEING LEFT BEHIND! I have a 7th grader, and unfortunately she had been effected by this unfortunate change in the US Education system. This law in my opinion, based upon experience is holding all of our children back. Children who were in the past 'trouble children' were handled as such, in classrooms set up to handle such students, are being left behind, because they are being put in hallways or being sent to the office to set for the day or week, how are they learning, they are not! Children who have the ability to achieve and excel are being left behind, because they are missing out on a good public education, because the teachers are too busy trying to discipline the 'trouble children', because they have no option but to have these disruptions in their classes! This is why private schools are showing better grades than public, they don't deal with these 'trouble children', they are dismissed from the schools, giving the other chil! dren the education they deserve. UNTIL THE 'NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND' IS RESTRUCTURED, 'ALL CHILDREN (IN THE USA) WILL BE LEFT BEHIND', THUS, LEAVING OUT ENTIRE COUNTRY BEHIND. "
"How can I order myanmar read answer math 10 grade books."
"I am from Myanmar. It was just a small country in southeast asia near Thailand. I wasnot good in Math classes. I finished sixth grade and going to attend grade 7. When the final exam approach of grade 6 I was not ready yet for math. Other subjects were ready. I was failed. But when I opened this webpage and find about math, start from now I can challenge to math. My parents always said to me impossible is nothing."
"Hello my name is Marcia and I would like to get help for my child. She is a ninth grader that is struggling in school on a couple of subjects can you help with tutoring her."
"I have a 7th grader who is going to 8th grade this school year.At the begining of the 7th grade she was doing so good in all of her classes but she got sick with Mono and stayed at home for 1 month.I emailed every one of her teachers and they told me not to worry and she will catch up and there is no need for her to do any work at home. She got back to school and we found out that for every class that she had a test while she was missing they put 1/2 grade for her! she work very hard but never could catch up in math although i got a tutur for her and put her in math lab and knowing that she was very strong in math.I am very worried and do not know how to preaper her for the 8th grade math ,she got a D in 7th for math so i do not know if i should use the same tuture or if it was my child who did not try hard , i am just worried for her .please advise me. Thank you Fay ,Las Vegas"
"I am a junior high math teacher and I've seen a number of students fall behind simply because the day's lesson moves more quickly than they can comprehend, oftentimes because a student is still not proficient in the basic math facts and vocabulary. I strongly encourage parents to help their children prepare by memorizing their addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts. This one change will help students keep up with the lesson and tests will be much easier if they aren't having to count on their fingers or draw and count sticks for a basic answer. By the time they've done all that, they are tired and begin to lose confidence in their abilities. Secondly, homework is a terrific way to build skills. The textbook usually has some really good examples, so require that your child bring it home daily to practice each day's new topics. A few minutes of practice in the classroom cannot guarantee success. It's practice that makes one better. If your child's book isn't! one using spiral methods (practicing previous lessons continually), choose one problem from the last three lessons to review or else the concept may quickly be forgotten, even before test day. Lastly, I think a major factor in a middle schooler's performance may very well be their lack of structure or expectations. For example, if each day is different from the next as far as a morning and afternoon schedule, then he or she may be unknowlingly anxious because they may not know what to expect from day to day. This is especially true of students who are spending time in two separate parents' homes. If possible, set aside a quiet place for studying and set a time that is required to stay there. If there's not enough homework to fill the time, that is an excellent time to study. Then establish a realistic bedtime for the student. It may sound small, but it makes a tremendous difference in their performance the next day. Foods play a large part in their abilities as well. Obser! ve what your child is eating and drinking within a day and rep! lace som e of the junk with healthier alternatives. Breakfast and lunch are small changes you can make as well for the investment of your child and his grades. "
"I think it's the way math is taught. My son never had a problem with math until he hit middle school. He has anxieties, and now we finally decided to get some one to tutor him. We have battles everyday about his homework which consists of one or two worksheet pages as well as 3 or 4 pages of practice test pages. Almost every night we are on the computer looking for a site that will help him understand a concept better. I've read many articles about math and find it amazing that billions of dollars are being invested with parents paying for their children to be tutored in math. What has happen to teachers teaching well enough for students to understand so they do their homework independently? His national test scores taken during 6th grade was in the 75% rank has decreased to the 40% rank as an 8th grader. As a parent, I'm really concerned because no one sees that there is a serious gap has happen between 6th and 8th grade. Every test taken at this school is fill in! the blank or multiple choice with the exception in math. I have not seen one test dealing with essays. This is a magnet school and we are sure he probably will not attend high school there. "
"Thank you for this article. My daughter is a 7th grader and was recommended to accelerated math, social studies and english. After the 2nd trimester, she started perfomring poorly in her math only. I met with her Algebra 1 teacher and gave her an opportunity to retake her test as he identified my daughter 'a hard working student'. However, I noticed that her retake just seems to be lower grade than the original test. I am now wondering if she is suffering from test anxiety when it comes to math. My worry is that she will be turned off by math and might just hate math, altogether. I suggested that she takes Algebra 1 for summer class just to prepare her for 8th grade and into high school. She is quite reluctant about summer class but I am making it a requirement and not a choice. Is this a right approach? My daughter and I have been fighting over this and I am stressing out, as well as she. I do not want to overreact but I am concerned and I want to make the right direc! tion to this issue. I would appreciate a feedback from anybody. Thanks "
"Many teachers teach the way they were taught or are comfortable with math. Ask how they are differentiating and scaffolding instruction. These are the new buzz words that ask if the teacher is teaching to the level the student is learning and taking gender, readiness and type of intelligence (there are seven or more) into account. Math is about patterns and relationships."
"The other thing you need to realize about math is that almost all girls in middle school struggle through math (and science). It requires the one thing they lack - self-confidence. Don't be too hard on your daughters who are suddenly struggling with their grades in these topics. They already 'know' they are not doing good enough and that is the problem. What they need is your help to boost their confidence and help believing in their ability to problem solve!"
"I am a little concerned that my daughter may be falling behind or just not comprehending some of the math. I wrote to her teacher about my concerns and asked his opinion. He really knows more about her performance being there everyday. It has been two days and I have not fotten any response from him. I feel this is inappropriate and rude."
"I think children learning math need to start very early. Parents should pay attention to their children when they are very young. When they start to learn algebra, it's too late to make up what they have missed. Rome is not build in one day. It's very true. If a child is behind in math in elementary school, likely he is not able to do well in algebra. Parents may consider focus on lower skill subject to help their children before teaching them algebra. Math has much to do with age. Teaching adults in low still math, retaining is very poor. "
"What if you yourself are really bad at math and don't understand algebra? What can I do to help them learn without feeling helpless?"