Helping students who struggle with math

Math LearningFor one reason or another, elementary math seems to be an area in which students struggle. Whether the concepts are too abstract, the numbers are too intimidating or the homework too “boring,” many students don’t love math. As a teacher, this was a huge concern for me, not only because understanding math is an important component of being a successful adult in the 21st century, but also because it is in elementary schools that students build important foundations that will carry them through the rest of their math education.

How can I help my students find affection, if not love, for math? During my ten years as a 6th grade teacher, I found that students enjoyed what they were successful at, so my question shifted to, how can I help my students become successful in math?

Identify the problem
Before teachers can help struggling students, they will need to identify the specific problems that students are having. A student saying “I don’t get it” isn’t going to be very helpful, and chances are if you ask why they don’t get it, they won’t be able to tell you. You need to identify the source. While formal assessments can help pinpoint specific mathematical difficulties, many times the assessments’ questions are not open ended enough to uncover the root of the problem or the data is collected too late in the unit. Informal assessment by engaging students in conversations that focus their thinking is an excellent way to identify misconceptions or areas of difficulty. It is challenging in a full classroom to have a substantial math conversation with every student. In my classroom, I often had my student do a quick write in their math journals (I would read them and write back) or we did rotations of small groups or individuals to have time and bandwidth for these conversations. The information you can obtain in a short dialogue is incredibly revealing.

Recognize achievements
Positive reinforcement is a powerful component to boosting confidence and helping struggling math learners. This does not mean praising students for doing something expected, such as following classroom rules or turning in homework, but by praising them for their perseverance, effort, and initiative. I taught 6th grade and did not want my praise to sound artificial or forced. I would sincerely praise my students, not just the strugglers, when they tried really hard or accomplished a goal they had set for themselves. In my math classes, the students set personal math goals that we revisited several times a year.

Review each day
Start math class with a warm-up that is connected to the students’ real-life and the past/present classroom math curriculum. I loved percentages because there are thousands of examples from real-life situations, such as sales tax. An important idea to remember is that students greatly benefit from revisiting concepts from earlier in the week, month, or year. Math concepts are best understood when built off of previous knowledge. The students then have the capability to tackle new, more difficult ideas. Many struggling students do not have the proper foundation and then become increasingly frustrated throughout their math experience, support them in math by reviewing past concepts.

Give personalized instruction
Struggling math students may need a bit more attention to master concepts. It is difficult to personally connect with each child every day. Small groups and rotations work well to open up the teacher for personalized help and group problem solving. Many teachers are turning to personalized learning programs to open up their time to work with students individually. Meanwhile, the computer program is automatically tailored to fit the needs of each individual student. It is a win-win situation

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Kelly Urlacher

Curriculum Designer at DreamBox Learning
Kelly Urlacher began her career as a sixth grade teacher in Sammamish, WA in 2002. Shortly after, she received her Master’s in Education with an emphasis in Technology and Curriculum Development. After years of dedicating herself to students and education within the classroom, she earned her National Board Certification in 2009. Kelly currently works as a Curriculum Designer for DreamBox Learning and continues tutoring high school students in mathematics.