Math never was my strongest subject when I was in school. I missed a few days during the unit on percentages and got lost with the “x is what percent of y” part. Mastering more advanced math skills suddenly became a challenge. I’ve watched two of my three stepchildren also struggle in higher level math, much to the chagrin of their engineer father.

So I decided to consult with some experts to determine why kids struggle in math and what parents can do to help, especially if the parent, like me, doesn’t feel like a math master.

Math concepts are taught in a spiral process

Michael Priyev, founder of New York City’s Eureka Math Tutors, says that, “math can be unforgiving when students do not seek help.” What happens in a math classroom is that a concept or topic is introduced, or – as Cy Tymony, author of “Sneaky Math: a Graphic Primer With Projects,” says: “Students typically learn math by watching someone else draw unusual symbols on a blackboard or by reading books with very few pictures and by solving problems.” Solving the problems is “practice,” and in theory is the place for feedback between teacher and student.

But Priyev says, “While this sounds great in theory, if a student is truly struggling with a skill and they do not master it over time, nor do they seek help to understand the topic, there is no way they are going to be able to use it and apply it in order to build on another skill.”

And sadly, sometimes that unlearned skill applies to other areas of life, too. According to Mallory Silvestri, a teacher at Austintown Fitch High School in Ohio, “A lack of math mastery doesn’t just affect math. It has an effect on everyday life skills. I’ve seen its impact on telling time, counting money, and in science. If a student can’t calculate a basic equation, they will never be able to balance chemical equations or find percentages.”

Mastery of math vocabulary is essential to math success

Tymony calls math a science, language, and an art. Math is filled with a unique vocabulary (quotient, factor, equation, sum, dividend, theorem, are just a few), and many times students cannot figure out what to do with the numbers when they don’t understand what the vocabulary is asking them to do. Math vocabulary, like reading vocabulary, needs to be practiced and put into perspective for children so they can activate prior knowledge and build on what they are learning.

Tymony recommends taking math off the page and turning it into a fun craft project using household items. He believes that tactile activities make math memorable for kids and aids in comprehension.

Priyev agrees and added, “If a student could understand that 6 ÷ 3 = 2 is because exactly 2 threes fit into 6, then they can use the same idea to discover that 1 ÷ ½. = 2 because exactly 2 halves fit into 1.” This understanding becomes a skill and vocabulary mastery upon which future skills can be built. 

Students don’t practice math

Math homework was painful for me starting in advanced algebra. I used to try and get it over with as soon as possible. My stepchildren have taken the same approach. But like reading, playing the piano, or hitting baseballs, every skill gets better the more we practice. And practice also builds speed and confidence.

An article in the Seattle Post Intelligencer says: “Upon viewing an instructor demonstration, students oftentimes think they understand how to solve a problem, but when they pick up the pencil to attempt a similar problem themselves, they may not even know how to begin. Learning math skills and concepts can be like learning a new sport, in that the more learners practice, the better they become.”

Thousands of websites are devoted to free math practice problems (maybe an indication of how prevalent math phobia or ignorance is) and many are broken down by grade level. A quick Google search or clicking links in this article will take you to some.

During one of my summer vacations during the 13 years I was a professor, I worked my way through algebra and geometry textbooks to try to gain some mastery that had eluded me as a student. While we can always go back and learn new or old things at any point in our lives, sometimes it’s easier to learn subject matter the first time around.