Mom-to-Mom Support/Help with a reluctant math student

Help with a reluctant math student


My son turned six in November. We have been homeschooling him in a very relaxed manner this year on purpose, so as not to overburden him at such a young age. In the fall he did very well with math and moved quickly into the 1st grade book without any difficulties. He is a very bright child—loves to play and use his imagination. All that I ask of him as far as school work goes is one page of math problems and some reading time. He sometimes takes 3 hours to do a math worksheet. This is not because he doesn’t know how—it’s not because we haven’t tried rewards and punishments. He just takes that long to do 20 problems—he daydreams, draws, itches, plays, everything but do the problems. I am at my wits end about this and really don’t want to do this anymore. He’s not bad…he’s not a discipline problem. He just won’t do this math. And I don’t want to be his teacher anymore. Thanks… from a tearful and stressed out mom.

Dear Mom,

First, let’s look at the positives.  It sounds as if you’re assigning just the right amount of work for his age, between a bit of reading and a bit of math.  And he completed a whole year of kindergarten math in just a few months.  Good job, Mom!

So let’s analyze the slowness with math and see if we can pass on some ideas to you to try out.

For starters, check to be sure that he actually knows how to solve the math problems in the book.  He should be tested on the problems (with flash cards) before moving to the suggestions below.  If he can’t figure out the answers via flash card, he needs time with flash cards, manipulatives, and perhaps a computer game before returning to the book.  (Once he knows how to solve the problems quickly, follow the suggestions below).

Even though first grade math problems are a snap for us, be sure to use the suggestions, every lesson, in the teacher’s manual.  The presentations are made from the standpoint of the child and are an invaluable help.  They also present the opportunity for you to work one on one for a brief time.  Do at least one example problem together, and praise when you see that your child understands.

Next, I’d skip school, for a minimum of two days, until you can buy a colorful, bells and whistles computer math program.  Don’t tell him that we’re skipping math per se, because it might give him ideas, but instead schedule a reason to be out of the house so there is no school at all.  Perhaps go to Holy Mass, then off to the park one day, then a playdate with friends the next, or maybe stay home and bake cookies together.  This will give you both a chance to take a breather.  When you begin again, you can in an excited tone present to him that you are going to do school differently this week.  (If you can’t find a computer math game in those two days or so, extend your vacation from school until you have the game).

Because he has a good imagination and tends to be a bit squirmy, the computer math game should help him attend and accomplish the same goal of learning the math facts that the book presents.  The day before you begin school again, give him just a few minutes with the bells and whistles computer math game to whet his appetite.   Don’t tell him that you’re going to use the computer game with school, just say something like, “Wasn’t that fun?  I thought you might like that game.”

The next day when you are ready to start school, let him know that the fun computer game is going to be part of the school today.   Be sure to link the computer game to the work on the page, because he will need to have the self-discipline to do more seatwork as he progresses through school.  In other words, you might assign him five problems from his math book, and set a timer for a ridiculous amount of time, say thirty minutes.  Tell him that he’s going to have a race with the timer.  If he can beat the timer and complete those problems before the timer rings, he can do his math via a computer game.  If he beats the timer, praise him vociferously.  “See how quickly you finished your assignment!  Wow!  You did a good job of being speedy!” If he is still pokey and doesn’t beat the timer, neither praise nor chide, but there is no computer game.  The next day, still assign five problems, but set the timer for a bit more time than it took him to complete the problems the day before.  The idea is to show him that he can beat the timer, and encourage him by his success to try.

When you see how much time he really needs to complete five problems when he really is motivated—let’s say, ten minutes—set the timer for fifteen minutes the next day.  Praise him again for his speedy performance of the day before, and remind him how much fun it was to play the computer game yesterday.  Whatever time it takes him to do the problems when he really is focused, set the timer for that amount of time plus five minutes.  Demand only those five problems for about two weeks, until he begins to establish a speedier pattern.  Then add five more problems, increasing the time for completion accordingly.

If he slows way down when the extra problems are introduced, you might consider having him do five problems in the morning, and five more problems in the afternoon, again linked with the computer game.

On days that he finishes quickly, wait until he is playing and then praise him again by saying something like, “You are having such a good time with (those race cars or whatever).  I’m glad you finished your math so quickly this morning so you have lots of time to play this afternoon.”

Another factor that can influence children’s focus is location.  Is he schooling in a different room, or is he in the kitchen, living, or dining room where you can keep half an eye on him while you work at other things?  It can be terribly frustrating for you to feel that you have to be right there as a monitor as your work piles up and the day drags on.  If this is the case, move him to the room where you spend the most of your non-schooling day so you can keep an eye on him without having to hover.  Again, praise him when you catch him being focused. “Look at you!  You are really paying attention to your work!  See how quickly you are finishing today?”

After a week or so, if he has yet to beat the timer and is still pokey, continuing to take an inordinate amount of time to complete just five problems, you might add two things.  First, every ten minutes while he is working, have him get up and do jumping jacks for a few minutes, or run around the house once (outside, or run up and downstairs if you have stairs) to banish the squirmies.  Second, I’d seriously consider taking away a privilege of some sort, to be returned when he can beat the timer.  Whatever you choose to do, be unflinchingly consistent.

In any event, look at the progress that your son has made with you as teacher!  These problems, with a different approach and your good teaching, will pass.

May the Holy Spirit guide and bless you as you homeschool,

Nancy Nicholson

About Nancy Nicholson

Nancy Nicholson is one of the founding authors of Catholic Heritage Curricula. Equipped with an abundance of God-given talent, a major in Secondary Education–English, and years of experience homeschooling her own children, she has written over thirty educational titles, beginning with Little Stories for Little Folks. Her unique ability to develop programs and workbooks that “fit” both advanced and struggling students is due to her experience raising children of different ability levels and learning styles: two of her children are developmentally challenged, while another went on to graduate from Harvard and is now a college professor.