Learning Challenges

Math, Language, and Science: “I Will Never Learn This!”

Learning math and foreign languages requires mastering the fundamentals first. If your child struggles, do these things to keep her from getting discouraged.

When we see a student continue to struggle to learn math, a foreign language, or one of the advanced sciences (physics, chemistry), we think:

  • Maybe she just doesn’t have the “math gene.” (I certainly didn’t.)
  • Maybe the teacher is going too fast.
  • Maybe she doesn’t find math or science interesting.

All these guesses may be true. In 2005, Gallup conducted a poll that showed students found math the least interesting and most challenging subject across the board.

The Swiss Cheese Problem

It was 1983, and I sat in my eighth-grade algebra class. I looked up at the board and saw yet another equation. I thought to myself: “I’m never going to learn this.”

When I tried to do my homework, I didn’t know what I was doing. At first, I would do most of the work, and leave a few questions blank. A few weeks later, I did hardly any of it. What happens when you aren’t doing the homework?

  • You don’t get any of the extra practice — which means,
  • You won’t know what’s going on in class the next day when you move on to more complicated problems — which means,
  • You’re further lost when you try to do the next set of homework problems.

Then you get a C or a D on a unit test, and your motivation is shot.

I always sat in the front of the class, and seemed to be paying attention, but my understanding was like Swiss cheese: I understood a few concepts, enough to keep up at first. But there were holes in my learning that widened over time. This was my struggle with math, and I see the same struggle in many of the students I help. It’s even worse in students with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD).

[No More Math Anxiety: Four Easy Math Tips That Really Add up]

Learning the Basics

Math, the languages, and many of the sciences require cumulative study. If you don’t learn the fundamentals, you’ll get more confused and fall further behind as the class moves on.

As these gaps grow, it becomes harder to fill them, and more unlikely that you will be able to fully grasp algebra or French later on. If the challenges are not dealt with quickly, students will become disillusioned. So what do we do about it?

Step 1: Is Your Child Falling Behind?

There are some signs that indicate whether your child is falling behind at school. You probably don’t need to step in and help if your child:

  • Has one or two low homework or quiz grades, but quickly recovers
  • Comes home with a disappointing test grade with a clear cause that is unrelated to her understanding of the material (a careless mistake, or being sick when they took the test)
  • Is having trouble with one or two specific concepts, but is open to help and willing to work on them.

You probably do need to step in and get some extra help if she:

  • Comes home with a string of low grades on quizzes and assignments
  • Does poorly on a unit test or comes home with a highly uncharacteristic low grade
  • Seems “down” about the subject or averse to studying it
  • Says she doesn’t have homework or any studying to do for a tough class
  • Doesn’t want to go see the teacher if you suggest it.

Step 2: Help Your Child Catch Up

In the case of a poor test grade, you should encourage your child to take the test again, if the teacher has a retake policy. If your child isn’t making test corrections, or letting you know that she retook the test, she is feeling defeated.

[Free Guide: Easy Accommodations to Help Students with ADHD or LD]

Kids aren’t usually willing to email the teacher with a question or to ask for help. So sit with her and help her write an email. Here is a template:

Hi Mrs. Smith,

I’m working on my homework due this Tuesday, and I’m not understanding how to use the Pythagorean Theorem. Can I stop by after class tomorrow to meet and ask you about it?

Writing and sending one email will take a load off of your child’s shoulders, especially when she sees that her teacher is willing to help her.

Ask whether your child may attend study hall after school and sit in the classroom with her teacher while she does her homework. Students feel more comfortable asking for help without classmates present.

When a Tutor Is the Answer

Most parents are capable of helping their children with studying, but a tutor is usually more effective in getting a child up to speed in math or a foreign language. A tutor is a new face with less personal stake in the game.

He or she will identify your child’s struggles, take steps to close those subject gaps and catch him up, and strengthen his ability to keep up with new material. Tutors will:

  • Assess where the student is now, and identify the gaps in understanding the fundamentals that need to be addressed.
  • Develop and execute a plan to re-teach that material expediently, so that the child has time to work on what is currently going on in class.
  • Spend time helping a student through her homework, and preparing for upcoming quizzes and tests.
  • When a student starts to master the material he didn’t grasp the first time, a tutor will preview new material, so he will be motivated and focused when he gets to school.
  • Work with the student on practice tests ahead of his exams. In general, kids who perform poorly don’t know how much they actually know. Practice tests help students identify where they need work, and prepare them for exam pressures.

[Free Resource: 10 Teaching Strategies Suited to Students with ADHD]

ANN DOLIN, M.Ed., has more than 20 years of teaching, tutoring, and consulting experience. She founded Educational Connections, a tutoring company that has grown to employ 200 tutors and has worked with more than 8,000 students in the Washington, D.C., area.