Learning Math: Why Kids Get Frustrated and What Parents Can Do


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Young boys playing a math game by counting coinsWhen it comes to learning math, some students do just fine. Others, unfortunately, seem to hit all the snags and pitfalls while trying to learn.

While working with students, I have found that the most glaring deficit in math understanding is a skill called "number sense" or the ability to have a feel for mathematical amounts. Students who have developed number sense do much better in math. Weak math students often produce answers that are not even close to being correct. They won't think to challenge whether their answer is logical—an indication they lack number sense. 

Good news—even though academic frustration seems rampant, math frustration can be minimized with the help of adults playing math games or activities at home. Math games are fun and motivating. They develop number sense and actually get kids to want to be involved. There are no class grades tied to the outcome. These activities do not need to be purchased, and here's more good new—there's no tricky math understanding needed for the adult. Any type of math game holds value and don't let the word "game" make you think that a math game is not academically worthy.

Math Games

Here are some ideas for math games to play with your kids—some can be played alone.

  • Grab a handful of anything--jellybeans, marbles, paper clips, or pennies--anything that can produce "a bunch of." Have the child guess and write down the estimate, then count to confirm. Hands-on counting is a wonderful activity for students that need tactile validation.
  • Find another handful of anything, estimate the amount, and then grab another handful of the same amount. Do the different handfuls hold the same amount?
  • How many cereal Os does the child eat each morning?
  • What is the value of a handful of pennies, nickels, dimes, or mixed coins?
  • Fill three different sized cups with the same item. Estimate and write down how many is in one of them, count, then estimate how many are in the others.
  • Look quickly in a drawer, close the drawer and then estimate how many items are in it.
  • Estimate amounts in a see-through container. Guess the amount, write it on paper, count to confirm.
  • Estimate the weight of a backpack.
  • How much time would it take to reach a certain destination?
  • Place three pennies on the counter. How many more are needed to make 10 pennies? Repeat using different amounts that will equal 10. Put 12 cents on a counter. How much more will make 50 cents?
  • How long would it take to earn a certain amount of money?
  • How long would it take to earn $1,000 if you earned $5 a day walking the dog?   
  • How long would it take to spend a million dollars, spending a specific amount each day?   
  • How many inches would a 100-foot building be?  
  • Estimate weights of objects, then step on a scale. Fill a bag with items, or a suitcase, estimate the weight.   
  • Arrange objects heaviest to lightest.  
  • For older students, determine how many miles they can travel by car for 6 or 8 hours by traveling 55, then 65 miles per hour.    
  • Discuss the child's strategies used for her estimating.

Increasing a students' number sense and math confidence will not solve all the challenges felt by both math strugglers and teachers. But developing number sense outside of school will certainly help. Students will be able to transfer their learned information into the classroom. Instead of just guessing the answer and hoping to be lucky, students will better know when their answer seems logical or have enough mathematical sense and confidence to keep on working.

Maureen Stearns is an author, parent, and educator and has been teaching struggling learners for more than 20 years. She holds both Exceptional Student Education and Community Psychology Degrees. She recently wrote Multiply and Divide with Sticks and Steps®: Teach this Easy Method in Just 5 Minutes, to help students conquer this stumbling block.

Does your child struggle with math? Share the tips you've used to ease this stumbling block.

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