Friday, 5 December 2014

Special Report - Giving Kids Confidence in Math

We are descendants of a long line of word nerds - bookmobile loving, scrabble playing, grammar correcting nerds.  I come by it honestly.  So naturally my son and I read often.  We love to point at the pictures, discussing the characters and imagining possible outcomes.  I know I can raise him to think that books are as magical as I do, even if he struggles mildly with reading at the start.  I can't, however, say the same thing about math.  

I used to be good at math in primary school. Eventually, at some point, I remember thinking math was too hard and beyond my grasp even if I studied.  I think a lot of parents struggle with this fear.  What if junior comes home with his 5th grade textbook and I realize I can't help? Although my son is many years from that point, in the interest of preparedness, I decided to look in to what I can do to help with math confidence from the start and what to do if I notice I struggle.

Owner/ operator of a local Kumon Math & Reading Centre, Corina Floca-Maxim, spoke with me to quell my fears. She admitted from the outset that she saw a large number of parents frustrated by the lack individual support children received, due in part to classroom sizes. But it is true also that parents occasionally view education as an outside responsibility, expecting the teachers to do an impossible job in the hours they have with students. Realizing a child's potential is as much about reinforcing routine and good habits, as it is about learning the fundamentals.

Ready to do my part, I asked how I can improve my boy's math at home before his formal education starts.  Her solutions were as easy as they are intuitive:
  • Count things in your surroundings as you would mention words to form vocabulary (stairs, animals, red cars, etc.)
  • Read prices, count change, and discuss monetary transactions. Also good for understanding the value of a dollar.
  • Purchase number magnates, blocks, or boards to make numbers present for conversation.

These things may sound simple, but skills even as basic as these, means a comfort level on which to build. The daily reinforcement which then comes with homework and increased responsibility (say, with an allowance) begins to create more confidence.

At a certain point in schooling, I'm sure you have heard it said, boys seem to excel beyond girls in subjects like math. I asked Corina if that was her experience. Surprisingly, she said no. Knowledge of math is about repetition and exposure to examples, reinforcing the fundamentals before moving on to more complex concepts. Students often graze over important information and lean on calculators to get through a topic rather than truly learning it. She had seen a grade seven student who placed closer to the second grade, not having knowledge of the multiplication tables and even finger counting to obtain the answers.

Lack of knowledge or the perceived lack can be frustrating for kids, making them not want to study. Parents need to recognize that progress can be slow, but it is always possible if they maintain a routine. Corine recommends a dedicated study space that is quiet with minimal distractions.  Homework time at a consistent hour (more or less) also helps to reinforce learning as part of the child's day. 

If your child continues to under-perform their potential, it might be time for a 3rd party to step in. Other than special education and school sponsored assistants, there are two ways to get your child the extra help they need: tutoring businesses and personal or private tutors. Both have their pros and cons.

Tutoring businesses such as Kumon, Oxford Learning, Sylvan, and more have a reputation and a system that has been long tested. The Kumon philosophy, for example, is Japanese in origin and has been in existence since 1954.  They preach a home-based study method in which, through lesson planning and skill building, they help students understand math and reading at their grade level and beyond. They provide a placement test, 2 weekly visits in a local office, and daily home tasks to start improving upon fundamentals, then building up. A disadvantage might be the fact that the learning system might not fit all children, and additional sessions per week are not available.

Private tutoring is also a good option, such as by a retired teacher, a university student, or other qualified individual. These teachers might have a variety of techniques at their disposal, form a buddy relationship with the student, and be creative with their approach to learning.  The advantages of this may also include instruction in your own home, as many visits weekly as required, and perhaps a lower cost.  Potential disadvantages may be possible, such as instructor inexperience and unknown credentials. If you would like to hire privately, remember to ask for references or seek candidates recommended by the school or other parents.

As with testing, students will have good days and bad days.  Test anxiety, lack of sleep, less than ideal nutrition, and the like can all be factors in low test scores.  Your best defence is almost always a good offence. A solid knowledge of the basics and a commitment to understanding the new skills expected of them will get them better results in the long run. My job as a mom is simply to be patient, help my son become confident and independent. This means taking an active roll as a member of his educational team, and I am excited to do so!

Corina Floca-Maxim is excited to be able to share the method of learning that so helped her two talented sons achieve their success.  She can be reached at

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