I’m a math tutor. I once took a call from a mom feeling so desperate she held up the phone so I could hear the shouting as her husband attempted to help their tween son, Chase, with math homework. It sounded more like a Jerry Springer soundstage than a suburban kitchen.
Crunching the Numbers
Many of my tutees resemble Chase. They’ve lost joy for math, fallen behind, and feel hopeless about catching up. Then there’s the middle school cool factor: it may no longer be embarrassing to be bad at math. Few tweens or teens brag they can’t read, yet there’s little stigma attached to math inadequacy. Your own math struggles can leave you feeling discouraged, too: like some folks get it and some don’t.
One of my students cried as she described feeling overwhelmed by tests. Staring at an exam, she said she felt “clueless where to begin.” Test anxiety is common when students lack confidence.
Confronted with repeated failure, students may mask math anxiety with callousness (“I’ll never use this stuff”), anger (“It’s too difficult”), or false indifference (“Whatever”). Even the most easygoing parents may find it unnerving to help.
In my experience, when students learn to do math successfully, they begin to like it. While a magic bullet has yet to materialize, there’s always hope, even if your child is failing. Sometimes a tutor is the answer.
Why They Shut Down
Understanding the dynamics of math may help if your student is under-achieving. Many children who struggle with math shut down in class to avoid painful feelings of defeat. They can’t see the relevance of solving abstract problems. They haven’t developed an appreciation for the beauty of the logic in math. So it becomes a vicious cycle of poor performance, shutting down, failure to learn new material, etc.
Students caught in this cycle need to feel safe to open up; a warm, friendly environment is essential. Instead of diving into solving problems, a good tutor will take time to build trust, and will explain why investing effort is worthwhile. This may sound touchy-feely (“I want my child to perform better in math, not feel better about it,” you may think), but addressing anxiety is a critical step toward improved performance, grades, and attitude.
While my tutoring sessions are customized for each student, I always use the following strategies in my work. If you’re looking for a tutor, you may want to find one who uses them too. I believe they work:
- Engage students in a working relationship. Many students ask “why bother?” with math. But the objective isn’t to pour all the formulas, theorems, and tutor’s expertise into the student. Rather, improvement results from the seeds planted in tutoring, hard work, and a strong relationship.
- Explore strengths and obstacles to learning. Frequently teachers suggest ways a student may improve. Chase’s teacher reported his tendency to drift off during lectures, and his inability to get started on assignments. Tutoring sessions reveal a student’s learning style, strengths (good at mental math?), and impairments (never mastered math facts? disorganized?).
- Set them up for success. When possible, students should be given choices. Rather than articulating immediately how a math problem should be approached, a good tutor will ask the student, “What math operation could be applied here?” It’s satisfying when they can own their success.
- Provide tools to seek help. Math vocabulary is critical. When vocabulary is weak, a student may say, “I don’t know what to do with these fraction thingies,” whereas a developed vocabulary helps them say, “I keep forgetting how to convert improper fractions to mixed numbers.”
- Explore self-image. With repeated failure, students may succumb to negative self-talk (“I’m dumb,” or “My teacher thinks I’m slow”). Chase’s catchphrase was, “I’ve never been good at math.” Parents may unwittingly reinforce such negativity with, “I was never good at math, either.” Students need encouragement that nobody’s perfect, a math grade doesn’t reflect intelligence, and math can be learned in different ways.
- Restructure counter-productive self-talk. If a student forgets the rules for adding integers, “I’ll never remember all this” can become, “Until I master adding integers, I’ll refer to my notes.” Even subtle shifts in thought patterns reshape attitudes.
- Acknowledge there’s no substitute for hard work. It’s the mantra my students hear most. Conquering math angst is never a waste of time.
Michele Ranard tutors math. She has two children, and a master’s degree in counseling.