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A Trick For Getting Unstuck in Math

Math is the subject my kids struggle with the most.  If they are stuck during the school day and have trouble moving forward, it is most likely going to be in math.  And, I am sure our family is not alone in this struggle!

A few years ago, I finally figured out a way to support my kids and help them get unstuck without providing too much support.  As I shared in Help Children Maintain Emotional Control During School, my ‘golden rule’ to helping children is Give your child the least amount of help needed to be successful.

The math ‘trick’ below follows this rule.  I start with giving very little support and can increase it as needed.  And so far, it has gotten us unstuck and moving forward in our math assignment every time!  And it works no matter what math skill we are working on!

Important: This ‘trick’ or strategy assumes that your children have been taught how to do the given problem and have gotten stuck. This is NOT the process I would use to teach a brand new math concept.

Do your kids struggle with math? This math 'trick' allows us to get unstuck and move forward in our math assignment no matter what skill we are working on!

When to Use the Math Trick?

You want to support your child with this ‘trick’ or strategy BEFORE they have a meltdown…before the tears, before the anger.  But ideally, right before!  There is nothing wrong with our kids struggling for a little bit in math or any other subject.  This is where learning occurs and how they build resilience.  However, if they start to move into a state of emotional dysregulation, then their brain is going to shut down and learning won’t occur.

So you will need to read their cues and determine when they have struggled long enough and are ready to ‘lose it’.  Then, jump in just before then.  Some children will be able to struggle for awhile and still move ahead in their work.  Some children are much more easily frustrated and your window for stepping in will be small.

Boy bent in frustration over a paper of math problems.

Who Does Best with This Math Trick?

Before I give you the steps of the ‘trick’, I should note that this strategy works well for children who are good at verbalizing their thoughts.  Maybe their verbalization skills are stronger than their writing skills. Or maybe, they have good writing skills,too, but when it comes to working through math AND writing, it is just too much.

If you have a child who struggles with language or verbalizing their thoughts, this may or may not be the trick for them.  You can try it and see if it helps. But, you may find that you need to pull out manipulatives and model the problem. That is a discussion for another day, but you may find that Numberless Story Problems are helpful in these instances.

Step One: Pencils Down

So when one of my boys gets stuck in math, I grab a dry erase marker and tell them to put their pencil down.  Usually, immediate relief floods their face.  I have them tell me what the problem is they are trying to solve, and I write it on the board. Not only do they feel relieved that someone else has ‘taken the wheel’, but they also have easily initiated the new process of ‘telling me what to do‘ by simply reading the problem to me. And we are off…

Woman writing a math problem on a whiteboard.

Step Two: Tell Me What to Do

Next, I ask them what the first step is they need to do. If they tell me the correct thing to do, I write it down. If not, I usually say something like ‘hmm…’ or ‘are you sure about that?’. We continue in this manner for each step of the problem, unless more support is needed…

Timeout: More Support Needed

If I realize at this point, that my child really has no clue how to solve this type of problem, then I suggest that I take a few moments and remind them how to do this type of problem. Now, here is an important part…I do NOT use their problem to teach them. I still expect them to work through that problem somewhat on their own in a few minutes. But, I make up a couple similar, but different problems (i.e., I change the numbers.) and model how to do those. Then, we go back to the original problem.

Step Three: Hand Control Back to Them

Ok, so we are back at the original problem and the child is doing a pretty good job of telling me what to do and I am writing each number down.  I am often surprised at how many times this is all the help they needed! You might even be thinking “It can not be that simple.”, but it really often is! Usually, we will do the next couple problems this way and then…

Once the child is in A CALM STATE, I have them go back to working problems on their own. This last part is key to knowing when to hand the work back to them. If we hand the rest of the work back to them before they have calmed down enough, we are quickly going to be back where we started with a highly frustrated child. It is better just to keep writing the problems out for them, even if you do the entire assignment this way, than to have them get frustrated again.

Boy smiling while completing a sheet of math problems.

Timeout: More Support Needed

You may find when you start writing down what your child tells you to do that they are having trouble with the order of the steps. This is super common with children whose brains work differently than ‘typical’ (whatever ‘typical’ means!). In this case, I will just start putting my marker on the part of the problem that is next without saying anything. For example, I may lightly tap the next two numbers to add together if we are doing multi-digit addition and then hold my marker where the answer will go and wait. I may give a slight verbal cue. But, if they are really struggling about the order, then I would go back to the first ‘timeout, more support needed’ step above.

When do THEY Write Down the Problem?

You may be wondering when your child should write down the answer on their assignment that you just did on the board.

Do not have them write along as you are writing. The child’s hands should be empty during this process. You may have them copy the work you did at the end of the problem once it is completely solved. You may wait until you have done a few problems and then have them write the work on their paper.

OR…they might never write the work to those particular problems on their paper. The goal is for them to return to a calm emotional state and complete the rest of their work well. If having them write the work you just did on their paper interferes with this goal, then I wouldn’t worry about it. Now…if they do their math work on the computer, then you may have to have them enter it there so that their work is marked as ‘complete’ and they can move on the next lesson.

Are you ready to give this ‘trick’ a try?  Did any questions pop up while you read through it?  Let us know so we can answer them!

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