Math Tips for Struggling Homeschool Students


Your child is in tears again because it’s time for math. You know that they can do it, but they don’t believe you. They struggle through the lesson. They don’t understand any of the tips or tricks to calculate the answer faster. They are reliant on fingers and counting, even if they are multiplying 7 times 8. You are just as frustrated as they are, and math soon becomes a dreaded chore.

Does this homeschool math scenario sound familiar?

Step 1: First Untangle the Stress Response

Struggling Students Get Stressed When They See the Math Book

First, we need to unravel the dread. If your child is stressed about math, they are not in a space to learn. Stress actually blocks higher learning. You can read about the neuroscience of how stress blocks learning here.

One way to undo the stress related to math is to take a break. But if your child is already behind, you may not feel comfortable taking a complete break. Instead you can take a break from the curriculum you are using and study math in a different way:


The point is, you need to unravel your child’s stress reaction to math before you move forward with the math learning.


As you move forward, keep in mind that you need to keep your child’s relationship with numbers positive.

This does not mean your child won’t ever get frustrated. They will. Math is hard. Math is hard because it requires thinking, and thinking is hard. But you can dispel a lot of stress simply by acknowledging that it is hard, reminding them that each concept gets easier with practice, and not expecting them to learn faster than they are able.

Step 2: Then Help Your Struggling Math Student

Once you’ve defused the bomb of math panic, you can safely move onto helping your child with the actual math. Here are five concrete ways to help your struggling math student.

1. Memorize Math Facts

It’s key to memorize math facts to free space in working memory for new concepts.

Memorizing math facts can seem pretty dull and redundant. But without the basic facts memorized, kids do not have the space left in working memory to focus on thinking about the new concept that is being introduced. Everyone has a limited amount of space in working memory. We get around this limitation to complete complex tasks by storing a lot of data in our long-term memory.


If a math fact is in long-term memory, a child can pull it up in a split second. But if the fact isn’t there, the child has to use their working memory to make that calculation.


If their working memory is also trying to remember all the steps for long division, he has to let those steps drop out of working memory while he calculates. This means that by the time he has the needed math fact he may have no idea where to write that number down. (Because he doesn’t have the long division steps memorized yet either and he had did not have room for those steps and the multiplication calculations to both be present in working memory at the same time.)

This leads to a lot of frustration. Your child just went through all this work and now they are stuck again.

It is okay to patiently remind a child over and over again while they are learning new concepts. You can also give them a clear example sheet to refer to. But one of the best ways to help them retain new concepts is by clearing up space in their working memory so they can be fully concentrated, thinking about that new concept.

Our brains do not like to think. So, if we spend a lot of time thinking about something, the brain will decide to store it in long-term memory.

To free up the space they need, help them memorize their math facts. Memorizing math facts does not have to be boring. There are many ways to make it fun. Here are some math tips for struggling students to make fact practice more enjoyable.

  • Games & drill – Play card games, board games, computer games, and apps. If you can do this as a family, it feels less like school and more like family game night.
  • Just a little bit of practice every day – This can be done with a 2-5 small problems. Encourage your child to see how fast they can answer. Check out Page A Day Math for a great way to provide this kind of practice!
  • Silly songs or stories – Sometimes these memory devices are the magic trick that a child needs to finally cross that info into long-term memory. This may be because it creates another connection to the information. The more connections to information, the more our brain knows that we will need this information again, and it also knows right where to store that information.
  • Hands-on activities – These can be simple like counting by 4 while doing jumping jacks, or getting a giant numbers mat and jumping to every multiple of 7 in order. Go outside and look for math in nature! Mixing up physical activity, which children’s brains crave, with the practice of math facts can keep things fun and light.

Pick out five different ways you think your child would have fun practicing and do one each weekday. Novelty is one way to harness to the power of the reticular activating system which is a part of the brain that determines whether or not your child should be paying attention to the information being received. So, while you may be tempted to only utilize one method to memorize facts, your child will learn them much faster if you mix it up a little.

2. Use Math Manipulatives

Let’s talk about fractions. If the first time your child ever sees or is introduced to a fraction is in a math book, their brain is not going to have any idea where to store this new abstract idea. But if your child has seen fractions in recipes, heard about fractions as you cut a pizza, or put four quarters together to pay for an item at the dollar store, then their brain knows where to put this new abstract idea. The samples already exist. The child knows about fractions and when they get to it in the math book it is simply a matter of naming the concept, and then they are ready to learn about fractions on a meaningful and deeper level.


PRO TIP: Move from the known to unknown, the concrete to the abstract.


Much of math is abstract. But learning abstract concepts is a difficult task. To do it, a child needs many concrete examples so that they can see the underlying pattern behind all those examples. As we move deeper into math is becomes difficult to relate every concept back to a concrete part of the child’s world. But the more we can use hands-on manipulatives to introduce concepts the easier it will be for them to grasp that abstract idea behind those operations and equations.

3. Get Visual

In addition to using manipulatives whenever possible, having a variety of visual examples of a concept is also very helpful. Many math concepts can actually be represented visually two or three different ways.


The more different types of examples used for an abstract idea, the more likely a student will catch on to the underlying concept.


There are different notations to solving a problem. One notation is generally considered the most efficient and becomes the standard that is taught. But the standard notation is not the most important part of math. The most important part is understanding the abstract concept that the notation represents.

Again, showing several ways you can calculate a more complex problem and creating great visual examples creates more examples connected with the abstract idea. The more different kinds of examples that are provided the easier it is for the brain to grasp what that underlying abstract concept is.

4. Choose a Good Curriculum for Math

This brings us to a brief discussion of curriculum.

  • Some math curriculum has no hands-on activities, which is fine if you are comfortable supplementing that on your own.
  • Some curriculum skips the visuals.
  • Some curricula just does not provide enough examples for the child to have any idea what abstract concept they are practicing.
  • And many curriculums are really attached to one way of notating things and don’t take the time to show kids different methods which actually would help them connect to process and procedures with the underlying abstract concept.

Thinking about how the brain learns can help you pick an excellent curriculum. But don’t feel like you chose the wrong one just because your child is struggling with math. Some students struggle even with the best curriculum. Sometimes the magic is just in how you use the curriculum you already have. Which brings us to the next strategy for helping your struggling student.

5. Redo the Work with a Different Curriculum

It’s okay to redo math. This isn’t a punishment but a chance to try again and get it right.

Going back a second time means your child has more mental pegs to connect the concepts, making the ideas stick better.


PRO TIP: You can redo math without your child really knowing. If the idea of redoing the work would upset them, it is okay not to tell them what you’re doing.


Just switch curriculum or introduce a new resource and tell them you found something that you think will help them understand math better. Most curriculum doesn’t even have grade level numbers on it anymore. Going through a second time can help boost your child’s confidence with numbers because, for once, everything is making sense. Going back can be worth is just for the confidence boost.

Supplement with an Online Math Program

Assuming that you’re using a book-based math curriculum, a great option for redoing, relearning, and additional practice is to use an online math program. For example, CTCMath is an incredibly affordable online math curriculum spanning grades K-12. The novelty of doing math a totally different way can spur a child to greater interest and retention.

INCLUDES FREE TRIAL

But the main reason to redo challenging math is that everything your child learns in elementary math needs to be easy before they can move on to pre-algebra.

If your child knows that they struggle with math, and they are at peace with it, they may be fine repeating a level of the same curriculum. Or even just a unit of the program that focuses on the concepts they struggled with the most.

Repetition is a key part of learning, and a curriculum cannot predict how much repetition your child needs before they have mastered concepts. Only you can make that call. Using CTCMath gives your child this needed extra practice.

Step 3: Switch to Another Math Concept

Sometimes your child’s brain may not be developmentally ready to understand a particular math concept. That is okay. And it does not mean you have to stop all math. You can move to a different area such as geometry, symmetry, or basic multiplication facts.

You can come back to that tricky concept as many times as you need to and explain it as many different ways as you can find.


Eventually, between all the examples you have provided and the growth of their brain, the lightbulb will turn on and they will master the math.


Math struggles can be frustrating. But if we can take a step back and create an environment that is encouraging while acknowledging that math is hard, math can be a tear-free time of day. Take these math tips for struggling students and turn around your child’s anxiety about math this school year.

Marla Szwast

About the author

Marla Szwast writes about the science of education. On her blog you can find articles about how to incorporate the principles of cognitive and neuroscience in your homeschool. Marla's mission is to help mom's find clarity and confidence on their homeschool journey.

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