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Learning Challenges in Mathematics

By George Tucker, PhD
Child Psychologist 

One of the most common problems for any student, and any parent attempting to help their student, is mathematics.  This one is very close to home for me, as my 14-year-old daughter has often struggled with math over the years.  When younger, she seemed to think that the answers appeared by magic, rather than by a systematic unfolding of steps.  When I attempted to explain these steps, how it is necessary to get the basics before moving on to the higher forms of math, and how logical, systematic, and predictable it all is, she had trouble believing me.  One of the first lessons my wife and I learned is that sometimes it takes something or someone other than a parent to help with math.

Several years ago, we began working to resolve my daughter’s math struggles by using internet-based programs such as Math.com. Google the words math programs or math assistance, and you will be amazed by the number of websites that are now available.  Any one of these may be the key to unlocking your child’s interest in math or helping them with their problems in math.  This worked for a while for my daughter, but she still seemed to think that there were math wizards who held the secrets and would not give them to the non-wizards in the world.  Unfortunately, she still saw herself as a non-wizard.

We stepped it up and enrolled her in Kumon, a popular learning method developed in Japan and brought to the United States in the 1980’s.  Kumon was also great for a while, especially when it came to the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  However, my daughter found it too repetitious after approximately one year, and we made a contract that allowed her to stop going to Kumon by working on internet-based programs again.

She did extremely well until she encountered Algebra, which appeared to take us back to the days of believing in the math wizards again.  Algebra involves a great deal of abstract and left-brain thinking, and my daughter did not appear ready to learn it during her regular class time at school.  After seeking local tutors unsuccessfully, we again turned to the Internet.  This time a web-based service called WyzAnt came to our rescue.  My daughter is now tutored once or twice a week by a math whiz that was referred to us by WyzAnt, and my daughter is getting it!  It is indeed a pleasure to see her go from math phobic to math success.

As a psychologist, there are several things about math that are especially different and interesting.  From my earlier columns, you know that I am interested in right-brain versus left-brain learning styles.  Right-brain learners are generally more visual-spatial and mechanically minded, while left-brain learners are more verbal and mathematically oriented.  My daughter is very much a left-brain learner, but math was not her forte.

In most classroom situations, math requires a great deal of what has been termed working memory.  For example, let’s say that I ask you to multiply 4 times 7, then divide the product by 4.  You must remember all the numbers that I told you, perform operations on them, hold those numbers and operations in memory, and compute the answer.  You could be perfectly good in math concepts, get all the steps correctly, and still arrive at the wrong answer if you forgot to divide the product by 4 and instead divided by 2–or some other number.  This is why most good math teachers (and tutors) want to see your work.  This allows them to tell whether or not it is a math concepts problem or a working memory problem at issue.

Intellectual assessment such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-IV (WISC-IV) can be used to help determine if part of your child’s math problem is due to working memory.  If it is, there are programs to help develop and improve a child’s working memory.

There are also more serious mathematics disorders such as dyscalculia.  These can be assessed by a psychologist or learning specialist who is skilled in ferreting our the differences between intellectual ability and academic achievement.  One of the fascinating things about a math learning disability is that the child can often perform the skill one day and then be completely unable to perform the skill three days later.  It is much akin to the old idea of “use it or lose it,” but it is hard to perform math functions as often as it takes to keep the skill there for the person with a true disability in math.

Therefore, if your child has no math problems, encourage them to play math games such as those available on the internet, play the games with them, and reward them, if necessary, to continue playing the games.

If your child has math problems, try the internet-based programs, help them yourself, or hire a tutor.  Older siblings often make good tutors, especially if offered a reward for doing so, and it can enhance the siblings relationship.  Of course, discontinue this process if it breeds aggression or causes the older child to ridicule the younger child.

Make sure that the math problem is a math problem, not a working memory problem or some other related issue.  This may require a professional.

As always, keep trying.  Remember that your child’s brain is developing, and that something that did not work when they were six-years-old might work well when they are nine-years-old  Again, remember that I did not learn to swim until I was 26-years-old.  I hope that your child does not have to wait that long to learn math. I have been told by many of my right-brain learners that Calculus was much easier after they spent four years in the service than it was when they were initially trying to learn it in high school or college, however.  Therefore, keep on trying.