Do you have a child who struggles in math? Have they had an incredibly hard time memorizing math facts? Is teaching long division an impossible task? Then today’s post is for you.

Now, let’s talk about how and when and what you can skip, give up on, or not worry about in math with a child who is struggling.

Redefining the Problem

First of all though, did you know that mathematicians believe that we are teaching math completely wrong in America? It is true. People who do math for a living, those who study math, love math, are passionate about math, think we are teaching it wrong.  Why? Because we put too much emphasis on making kids do what a $10 calculator can do.  Instead, we need to be teaching children to do what calculators can’t do, such as logic, reason, and problem-solving.

Now, back to teaching your child. Where do you start and what do you not worry about?

Cookie Math

In the early grades, I do recommend working on counting, adding, subtracting, and even multiplying and dividing numbers your child understands. For younger kids, this means working with numbers smaller than 10, and gradually increasing how big the numbers are that you work with as your child comes to really understand those numbers.

In our house, this is called “cookie math.”  Examples of cookie math involve asking a child “If I give you 2 cookies, and then one more, how many cookies do you have?”  “If you have 4 cookies and you eat one, how many are left?”  You can do this with actual cookies in the beginning, or perhaps use smaller items like Skittles or Cheerios.

As my kids got older, I added problems like “If I bake 12 cookies, and you have to share them evenly with your siblings, how many cookies do each of you get?”  “If you each need to have 5 cookies, how many do I need to bake?”

Making it real and tangible will help most kids understand the concepts of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  And it is important that they understand these concepts before they move ahead to harder math. So, play with numbers and math, but don’t get upset if your child’s math program pushes skills they aren’t grasping. You can slow down or try it again later if it matters.

Letting The Tedium Go

What I don’t worry about is if my kids can multiply or divide 234.432 and 789.236.  Those numbers are too big and too difficult for pretty much any adult to not use a calculator.  Even though I could do that math, I’m going to use a calculator to check myself. The risk of making an error with larger numbers is too big.  We all know this. We learn this skill as students, but most of us never use it again.

You have to decide when you will pull out a calculator and when you won’t with your child, and that can feel tricky.  Your math program probably doesn’t encourage calculator use until high school. But some kids may never get to high school level math if they don’t use a calculator.  It’s true.

So, once the math started to just be too hard for my kids to move forward without a calculator, I pulled out a calculator. I made sure my child understood the concept of what was happening, but if the act of figuring out the answer takes them forever because they simply can’t memorize math facts and have to try to do 15 x 5 by actually adding 15 five times, then we need to just move along and get out the calculator.

Give Them The Tools To Succeed

Let me say, I do think you should try to teach your child how to multiply and divide and all those hard things. But if you have tried and tried, it is better to give them a calculator than to have them believe they are not good at math or to hold them back.

I do this because my child isn’t a calculator and they can use one for the rest of their lives. Yes, I said it. There’s a calculator on my phone at all times right now. The only time I can’t use it is while driving because that is illegal in my state. And not lying, the people who I know who do math for a living, use a calculator.

Especially once your child gets to middle school, I think it is important to help them keep moving forward in math and let them use a calculator as much as they need it. What you have to work with them on is understanding what to put into the calculator and why. And that isn’t always easy.

I do not recommend getting them the fancy calculator that they can put the whole equation into until they are in a math class that truly requires it. You want them to learn how to work a math problem in smaller parts first. That means a simple calculator until they need more fancy features.

Using a calculator is not giving up

In my experience, kids can keep learning math facts like multiplication and division after you have let them use a calculator. Eventually, if they enter the same numbers enough times, they can memorize those facts. It just took them a lot longer to get there.

Things your child can learn to do in math that requires brain power and the calculator can only help with, not do for them:

  • Understand fractions
  • Multiply, Divide, Add and Subtract Fractions – they have to figure out what to do with what, even if a calculator is helping them.
  • Understand the relationship between factions and decimals
  • Understand what percentages really mean
  • Tell time on an analog clock
  • Read or make a graph, pie chart, or table.
  • Remember the order of operations
  • Remember the steps for solving for X
  • Recognize if an angle is acute or obtuse

There is so much more to math than memorizing numbers. Let your child use that calculator and get ready for upper-level math!  College will totally let them use one too!

About the Author

Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.

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