In my previous post, I shared some of David Sousa’s findings related to elementary students struggling in math. These kids find themselves in a tangle of partially and incorrectly learned skills and procedures. They are uncertain about how to begin problem solving and which operations are appropriate. They are not fluent in math facts. These kids often become highly anxious about math, describing themselves as incapable of learning. They may act out in school or withdraw; either way, they define their situation as hopeless. When they attempt homework, they valiantly try to recall the procedures, but are mostly unsuccessful. These are the kids who cannot tell me what topic they are learning in math.
As in all areas of special education, the first step is gradually leading kids to an understanding of where they are, while building confidence and hope that relearning is within their ability. This is a difficult undertaking for both me and my student. Struggling math learners have a hodgepodge of knowledge. If they are identified in upper elementary grades, that tangle is enormous. I have found that the smartest students have the greatest tangles. Some of these students are twice exceptional, gifted with a disability. They have been able to stuff many partial facts and procedures into their memory and may have camouflaged their disability for a few years. Students with weaker memory may be easier to “retrain” because they have less to unlearn.
I described this process as “tricky” because of the emotional aspects associated with relearning. These smart kiddos have been told, “You can do it!” because their working memory gives them the appearance of deeper understanding. These bright kids often have strong metacognitive skills: they are aware that something is wrong and may have interpreted that as “stupidity.” Anxiety has now begun to seriously impact every math lesson. They become hyper-vigilant about their performance, expecting to make a mistake at every juncture and dreading tests.
Depending upon the student, I disclose enough information about their weaknesses to provide motivation but not so much that they want to run away! My goal is to infuse hope by demonstrating how much they HAVE learned. Systematic assessment is crucial to this process. Providing external motivation is often necessary, especially if they are phobic about math. They have not yet experienced the value and joy of truly learning math skills, so they need something to get them started.