Math skills for the child who does not understand

Many years ago, I taught children with learning difficulties and invented ways in which their parents could help these children to understand subjects such as mathematics. The problem stems, to a certain degree, from the inflexibility of the education system which caters for the majority, rather than those to whom words like “minus,””plus” and “division” mean nothing without simple explanation.

A simple way was devised where a child could relate to the experience of using mathematics as it relates to their life, rather than being an obscure mystery. For example, one child had missed the boat completely and, at the age of 11 years old, could not perform even the most basic of mathematical skills. No matter how much the basics were explained in simple terms, pen on paper, the traditional methods drew a blank, and his parents despaired and teachers had seemingly accepted that the child was not gifted in mathematics.

Amongst the many children taught, this child was probably the biggest adventure, as he really did not understand. Upon looking into his life through discussion with him, things which were relevant to the child were discovered, and little by little lessons were developed that his parents could use and practise with him, and between the school teachers and his parents, the child was able to catch up with the rest of the class.

Understanding how mathematics is applied to everyday life is important to a child that sees no relevance in the subject matter. For example, the child could read but could not tell the time. Applying a small rule that teachers learned what time meant to that child, they managed to show the child how to look up television programs, what time they were on, and to use his knowledge of time to his advantage. Of course, time is not really a mathematical problem, although all teaching has to begin somewhere and this seemed a good place.

Addition and subtraction

Without wanting to make the child feel stupid, a system was used where teachers began teaching basic adding skills with marbles. He knew his numbers but did not know how to apply them to a mathematical problem. Separate bowls were used with marbles in them, and the teachers worked through the sequence of addition and subtraction exercises, introducing the actual words only after the child gained a good understanding of what happens when, for instance, you take two marbles away from four.

Performed in a fun way and one that was practical, the child began to gain confidence, and little by little, the teachers introduced the idea of tables. It took patience although once the means of teaching that worked was established, following the same pattern for other mathematical tasks proved fruitful. A child, even at the simplest level, can understand the relevance of paying for items and knowing that the shop needs to give you the right change. By performing simple tasks, and by patience and understanding that if the child failed to understand, it was the teaching methods employed for that particular child that were at fault, lessons could be adapted to suit the child, and confidence gained.

Division and fractions

Division was a pretty simple task, once the teaching group understood that the equivalent word that the child understood was “sharing.” He had always understood the concept of sharing and had been taught to share since being very small. Taking an item that was interesting to him, such as a Mars bar or a cake, or even something as simple as Pokemon cards, sharing exercises were performed and the word “divide” was only introduced once he had understood the concept of what division was – sharing.

This method worked very well, and was applied to fractions – for example, cutting a Mars bar in half – and understanding that cut in half again, he had created quarters. He actually caught on very quickly to the concept of fractions and division and was extremely quick in his calculations and being able to put on paper that which he learned with practical exercise. It is important to strike the balance when understanding is achieved, and to carry the lesson through to written work, since marbles are not readily available in a real life situation, although waiting until a time when the child had grasped the concept before putting pen to paper was advantageous.

What to look out for as a parent

Of course parents take an interest in their children, and the education of their kids, although many dismissed their child’s lack of understanding of maths, because the child excelled in other areas and didn’t think maths that important. In fact, basic mathematical principles are applied in adult lives almost on a day to day basis and are essential as a life skill. Keeping an eye on your child’s progress is essential and parents can help by making the lessons appealing and fun, by remembering that not all children can learn by traditional methods, and it important never to write off a child’s ability in certain subjects because often it is the teaching method employed that is failing, rather than the child.

Schools do their best, though that one child that slips through the net and does not learn may just be a statistic to the school, but could be your child and learning to adapt and to help children see that the subjects that they see as blanks can be made both stimulating and interesting and can make the world of difference to a child’s future. Be inventive, and it actually stimulates great understanding between a child and a parent and is beneficial to both.