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There's no Crying in Math

Have you seen the movie A League of Their Own? The movie depicts the all-girls baseball teams from the 1940’s. In one of the scenes one of the women players gets yelled at by Tom Hanks, who plays the manager of the team. She ends up crying, to which he responds, “There’s no crying in baseball!” This is the exact line that runs through my head when I hear parents talk about their kids crying over math schoolwork.

In my opinion, math is like a game in that you need to learn the rules and practice skills daily. There should not be crying. A student who is crying over a school subject has reached a point where learning is no longer going to occur. This is the point where you as parent and/or teacher needs to step back and try a different approach. Sometimes this might mean reviewing some past concepts, showing a different method, gathering some manipulatives or other concrete materials that will help a student to visualize the work, or simply encourage your student to try again with the knowledge that mistakes are ok as we can learn from them.

I have always enjoyed math, but I have also experienced the struggles of not understanding as I was launched into Calculus before taking Pre-Calculus. (I know that those of you that struggle with all math might think this doesn’t count as understanding how “non-math” people feel.) However, the blessing of that struggle was a clear understanding of the frustration that math can incur. I’ve also taught math to many students during my years as a middle school math teacher, and I’ve seen the anxiety that math can bring about. But hear me in that there should be no crying in math. Crying means that learning is no longer going to be happening. Have you ever learned anything while crying?

The goal of my blog posts will typically be toward reflection, but in this case, I’d like to offer a few math tips.

  1. Do math daily. Unlike most other subjects, math is best learned through daily practice and small steps toward learning larger concepts. You cannot cram math; it is difficult to make up a large amount of math in a short amount of time. When other things come up during the day and you need to cut out some things, make sure you do math.

  2. Learn with your child. If you were “not a math person” in school, don’t offer that as encouragement for your child. They will likely latch onto the idea that it’s ok to not be a math person, when in fact, they might very well surprise you. Therefore, offer to change your own perspective by learning math with them. Daily.

  3. Try something new. You do not need to spend money on math manipulatives. When your child doesn’t understand a new concept, consider how you can pull in a hands-on object as a visual. If you are practicing money, use real money. If you are counting, use legos, matchbox cars, beads, or other items. If you are working on place value, use popsicle sticks and rubberbands to group them. If you are showing division, use playing cards and deal them out to divide between the players. If you are doing fractions, draw a pizza and divide into slices. Think of simple ideas that will make learning concrete and applicable.

  4. Draw pictures. Teach your kids to try to draw a picture of the problem if they get stuck. Often, we can create our own picture of a word problem that will clear up the process. That’s why elementary math books have pictures!

  5. Ask questions. When your child is stuck, don’t just tell them what to do next. Use questions like, what do you know?, what might come next?, what are you trying to find out?, which type of problem is this?, or what can we look at in your book to find out how to solve this problem? This will help them to learn problem solving skills.

  6. Choose how many problems to do. If you have a curriculum that has a large number of problems in each lesson, you don’t have to do them all. Allow your kids to do all the odd numbered problems. If they complete them with minimal mistakes, they can be done. If there are several wrong answers, clear up errors in problem solving and assign the even numbers.

  7. Check your work. Many math problems easily lend themselves to checking your work. Teach your kids to check their work. They should look at the answer to make sure it makes sense and make sure it has a label if it is a word problem. Also, plugging the number back into a problem to see if it checks out is a great transition into algebra.

  8. If your child struggles, work towards gentle math. When one of you is frustrated, step back and assess attitudes and emotions. If your child can’t do math unless you are sitting beside them, try to find a time of day and way to do that. This might be a great time to sit near them with a cup of coffee and a devotional. Some kids need the support of your presence and having you nearby for when help is needed. Offer timed breaks when needed. Lastly, remember to celebrate the good work and encourage them through the challenging times.

Our family loves board games and card games. Interestingly enough, my son who least likes math is our most avid game player. Math can be a daily challenge for him, but I recognize victories in the world of math when he beats me at chess, chooses to be the banker in a game of Monopoly, or enjoys adding up numbers to keep score in a card game. I smile at the irony, but I don’t need to remind him that it’s math.

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