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But experts say that it doesn't have to be this way. Math can actually be fun (or at least a little less painful) with the right strategies.
1. Break it down
Mathematician John Mighton, the founder of JUMP Math, a program dedicated to helping children enjoy and learn math, says it's almost ironic that kids struggle with math. "When you take the right approach, math can become the easiest subject," he observes.
The key, he says, lies in building confidence by breaking calculations down into small, manageable steps. For younger kids, he encourages parents to read over homework assignments and root out any difficult language so that the questions are posed in the simplest way possible.
He advises that kids complete the easiest questions first—doing so will build their belief that they can do it. After that, use the same principles to construct seemingly difficult (but actually simple) questions.
If a child can add a two-digit number, she can add a five-digit one. "Make it look harder and harder by an increasing number of digits—kids respond to those incremental challenges and see that they can conquer these hard-looking challenges," he says.
2. Find the math in everyday life
Math expert Marian Small, who has penned a number of books on the subject, including Making Math Meaningful for Canadian Students, says incorporating math into everyday life makes it more relevant. Have kids count the number of spoons in the house, or the total sum of trees on the street. And when kids get a bit older, a trip to the grocery store can provide a number of great lessons, like how many items are needed for a recipe to how much money is saved when an item is on sale.
3. Review as much as possible
Daniel Kamin, a teacher at Kitsilano Secondary School in Vancouver, notes that some students continue to struggle with the subject in high school, but won't admit they are having problems with the subject. It is reasonable to review the stepping-stone material from the previous year, but if struggles persist, it is worth asking if your child's school offers any remedial help.
"Have the student take advantage of the extra-help available from their teacher, if this is an option," says Kamin. "It also means a steady commitment to extra-help sessions over a long time." Students can also take a math preview class in summer school to prepare for the next year.
For some students, a "flipped" classroom—Internet of video lessons in the evenings, then homework at school, where they can access resources and expertise not available at home—may help. "There is also a huge resource out there on the web with instruction on any math topic you can imagine," says Kamin.
Even at this stage, linking math to everyday experiences can be beneficial, adds Kamin. Bell curves can be seen in the way that microwave popcorn pops (a few at first, a burst, then the last kernels). Parabolic structures are found in everything from highways to a basketball free throw.
"Students should not ask, 'When will I ever use this?'" says Kamin. "They may not ever use it, especially if the purpose of the material is to pave the way for further math, rather then being immediately and practically useful. But it is useful to have an awareness and appreciation of the mathematical tie-ins to many of the interesting phenomena around us."
As for the Butler kids, mom Jody just needed to figure out the root of the problem—and what motivated her kids. Abbey, it turned out, had an undiscovered learning disability—not in math, but communications—so taking out complicated language and breaking down questions to their component parts has been hugely helpful. And Jody tries to keep it fun. Ben loves Star Wars, so they rephrase the questions—counting storm troopers instead of apples—and both kids love Jody's incentive system: She gives them a sticker for every 10 minutes of homework completed, and after an hour, they earn the privilege to choose a family activity. "We even take field trips to the store, where the kids deal in dollars and cents when they buy something with their own money. They love it—they're even excited about it," says Butler.
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