Students who are struggling with math have a difficult path in front of them. They must relearn many partially and/or incorrectly learned procedures. Frequently, these students must deal with anxiety and strong feelings of stupidity. To make matters worse, most of their peers are still sprinting along, leaving our struggling learners with an increasing gap. Relearning is crucial, but how do we motivate kids to tackle this process?
Some kids are more likely to willingly participate in this process than others. Younger kids may not even understand the nature of their gap or their missing skills. Younger kids have less to relearn. Some have not developed crippling anxiety. A few of these kids may be “laid back” and relatively unconcerned about their performance. (I have only taught two “relaxed” students like this in over 40 years.)
For the rest of the struggling math learners, we must change the playing field through motivation and success. By the time these struggling students are in fourth and fifth grade, their primary goal is to avoid math in any way possible. “One and done” has become their motto. This means that external motivation is required (like the motivation that keeps many adults in their unhappy work situations). The reward system must be robust. Teachers need to involve parents in the process, perhaps for the actual rewards, depending upon student interests and options available.
I think it’s important to pair discussions/role-playing with any form of motivation. For this purpose, I create rubrics that prepare kids for new expectations and also allow kids to accurately evaluate their performance in math lessons. They are not evaluating their math achievement but how well they handle the frustrations of math intervention. Videotaping may supplement the use of rubrics. You are not only changing math skills; you are shaping attitudes and effort.
The following rubric is designed for a specific student. He is extremely discouraged, feels stupid, and has significant attention problems. There’s a bit of overlap between the categories by name, but the specifics allow this student to bomb in one area but still score points. As we work together, I am certain to adjust the rubric. The first question I face is where to set the bar (that is, how many stars equal what level or type of reward?). It’s important for my student to achieve initial success with this system, so the bar will start low. As he moves forward, I’ll raise the bar.
I mentioned above that motivation and success are key in helping students. As students improve their math performance, anxiety lessens. In future posts, I’ll share some tips for maximizing success.
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.
In a previous post, I shared information about the unique mnemonic strategies developed by Alan Walker of Multiplication.com. I purchased the materials for use with a fourth grader who has been unsuccessful in memorizing any addition facts, much less multiplication. Due to holidays and other scheduling issues, the student has only had three sessions of about 20 minutes each using this approach. In that time, he has memorized the mnemonics for each numeral from 1 to 9 and knows FOUR facts! Khalil and I are obviously really pleased! I think he was amazed that he really only had to memorize 36 facts (excluding ones, zeros and repeats; with all the practice on multiplication.com for his two’s times tables, Khalil no longer struggles with 1s and 0s! ). His confidence has improved, the stories for each fact are appealing to him, and if we didn’t have the tyranny of inappropriate homework, he could be a lot farther along.
The back story: I am still unhappy about his homework. I do know there’s no easy solution for kids who are years below grade level. However, I think that if he could work on underlying skills, Khalil has a chance at catching up. He did move up to grade level when we focused on reading for two years; he shot forward when I taught him basic phonological and phonics skills. But I suspect that Khalil has a math disability, based upon how intervention-resistant he is. He is now being considered for a Tier 3 intervention in the Response to Instruction program. As I feared, all these school frustrations have led to some significant behavior problems in the regular classroom. Khalil is adorable but is getting a reputation as aggressive and defiant.
I’ll keep you posted!