A recent Gallup poll asked students to name their most difficult subject. Not surprisingly, mathematics topped the list. Why is math so challenging for so many kids? The answer is that it requires two very important abilities—patience and perseverance.

Understand that math is a cumulative subject

It is also the sole subject that is nearly 100 percent cumulative. Students must have a strong foundation in order to be successful. In the elementary years, a child has to have a clear understanding of our place value system in order to add, subtract, and multiply large numbers. The basic skills, such as addition, provide the framework for understanding multiplication. Fractions and decimals lay the groundwork for ratios and percentages.

It is the ability to reason through multi-step word problems that helps middle school students find success in math. However this is precisely when many youngsters start to lose ground—in the middle school years. If they have a shaky foundation and are even earning Cs, they have likely understood only about half the material. They move on without truly grasping or maintaining what they have learned. They then are likely to fall further behind, lose confidence, dislike the subject, and take fewer advanced classes.

Realize that math isn't taught like it used to be

If you see that your child is struggling with homework, get involved. Let the teacher know what is happening. As your child starts daily homework, be sure he understands how to do the first few problems before he goes at it on his own. As you monitor your child, you may find that computation isn't taught as it used to be. When we as parents were in elementary school, learning involved rote memory. We "carried" and "borrowed" (although now it's called regrouping), because we were told that's the way to do it. It's unlikely we knew the reason behind the computation. These days, that approach is no longer the norm. Children are taught the "why" behind math through the use of manipulatives, namely Base-10 blocks. These blocks are used to represent ones, tens, hundreds, and thousands. Invest in a set for your household if you have children in the primary grades so that you can better assist with homework.

Make math fun

In order to make math fun, offer an alternative to traditional flash cards for teaching math facts. Use any board game, such as Checkers or Operation. Before each player takes his turn by selecting a game card or rolling the dice, he must first pick up a flashcard (no answer visible) and state the answer. If the answer is correct, he can then choose a game card/roll the dice and play the board game as usual. Kids love this approach because it makes something that was once painful, painless.

Toss an inflatable Multiplication Quiz Cube back and forth to practice facts. Make up rules such as, "Catch it and say the fact your left thumb is touching." My students are keen on this game because it gets them moving around. Another fun idea is to grab a deck of cards and play Multiplication War. Each player flips up two cards from their deck, multiplies the two numbers together and states the product. Whoever has the highest answer wins all four cards. The person with the most cards at the end of the game wins.

If you insist upon using flashcards, let your child hold the cards and quiz you. Studies show that merely allowing the student to hold the cards and take on the role of the teacher increases time on task and retention of data.

Help to conquer math word problems

For many students, word problems present great difficulty. This is because they have to apply their knowledge to a novel situation, not simply regurgitate facts. If your child is struggling with word problems, consider using the FOPS acronym strategy to assist her.

  • Find the problem type.
  • Organize the information in the problem using a diagram.
  • Plan to solve the problem.
  • Solve the problem.

The first step is for the child to identify the type of problem. What is she being asked to do? Next, she has to put the information she has into a diagram; in essence, she is drawing a picture as a model. Next, this information has to be put into a number sentence or equation and lastly, she must solve the problem. Research shows that when students use the same strategy, such as FOPS, to attack each problem, they are far more likely to be successful.

For older students, make a practice test

Long-term memory is enhanced when students take "interactive" practice tests. A highly effective way to prepare for an exam involves creating a practice test. This means that the student generates a sample test of questions he thinks may be on the exam. This information can come from correct examples in the text book, from old tests and quizzes, or notes. If the student gets stuck, he can easily refer back to the correct steps. In addition, I always encourage my students to ask their teacher about the format of the test. Will it be comprised of answer-only or multiple-choice? Will the student receive partial credit for showing her work? Having this information helps with preparation.

Is a tutor the answer?

If you find that as a parent, you're not the best teacher for your child, consider hiring a tutor to teach these study skills. A tutor comes to the table as a skilled and objective third party, without any emotional history with your child. One-to-one attention from the classroom teacher or a tutor can make the difference between grasping the material or falling further behind.

Ann K. Dolin, MEd, is the founder and president of Educational Connections, Inc., a comprehensive provider of educational services in Fairfax, VA and Bethesda, MD. In her book, Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework, Dolin offers proven solutions to help the six key types of students who struggle with homework. Learn more at homeworkmadesimple.com.