# I would rather throw a tantrum than learn math (10 year old edition)

June 9, 2013 3:55 PM Subscribe

I tutor a boy who is moving from 4th-5th grade. He's at grade level in most subjects, above grade level in reading, but getting an Elvis Presley head in math. Can you help me find ways to help him be less intimidated by math, allowing us more time to learn and practice before his eventual mental shutdown each session?

He's a great kid with undiagnosed ADHD. Until this year, his math instruction had been immersive Spanish, and he was doing "alright" among his classmates. This year they switched to dual English/Spanish classes and his grades have dropped in both sections. His English math teacher seemed to struggle with the existence of a tutor, and when they responded to emails for help from me at all, simply said the kid needed to speak to them more and try and do his homework, even if it was wrong. The classroom experience was equally difficult, and a normally funny, creative, and intelligent child was often reduced to tears, intimidated by simple concepts like single-digit division and perimeter.

I am not a licensed teacher, and don't have the benefit of courses that likely cover handling kids with additional learning needs, so mefites, I turn to you. Most of the tips and tricks I've been using are to help with his focus, and they've worked very well. Now his fear of math is eclipsing the attention to detail, and he's started throwing tantrums during sessions. He desperately wants to please me/his parents, so I know these aren't from a place of petulance, but of complete frustration with what he believes are the limits of his learning. Do you have experience helping elementary aged kids through the "math wall"? Were you one of these kids and have helpful hints? We'll be working together over the summer and (in a perfect world I rekindle his love of math, but I don't even have that so really) I want to help him get to a place where math is no longer terrifying, just challenging but comprehensible.

He's a great kid with undiagnosed ADHD. Until this year, his math instruction had been immersive Spanish, and he was doing "alright" among his classmates. This year they switched to dual English/Spanish classes and his grades have dropped in both sections. His English math teacher seemed to struggle with the existence of a tutor, and when they responded to emails for help from me at all, simply said the kid needed to speak to them more and try and do his homework, even if it was wrong. The classroom experience was equally difficult, and a normally funny, creative, and intelligent child was often reduced to tears, intimidated by simple concepts like single-digit division and perimeter.

I am not a licensed teacher, and don't have the benefit of courses that likely cover handling kids with additional learning needs, so mefites, I turn to you. Most of the tips and tricks I've been using are to help with his focus, and they've worked very well. Now his fear of math is eclipsing the attention to detail, and he's started throwing tantrums during sessions. He desperately wants to please me/his parents, so I know these aren't from a place of petulance, but of complete frustration with what he believes are the limits of his learning. Do you have experience helping elementary aged kids through the "math wall"? Were you one of these kids and have helpful hints? We'll be working together over the summer and (in a perfect world I rekindle his love of math, but I don't even have that so really) I want to help him get to a place where math is no longer terrifying, just challenging but comprehensible.

I was always convinced I was terrible at math - it turned out I was really good at it, but not nearly as good as I was at every

Anyway, what worked for me at that age was approaching math from an area of strength for me. I loved reading and specifically reading nerdy stuff, and thus responded extremely well to the Sideways Arithmetic book. I actually walked away from it thinking it was what taught me math, but really it proved to me that I could

Anyway, you may want to try out some puzzle/game books and see if you can make numbers fun for him (without any direct connection to what he's being assigned to do in school.)

posted by SMPA at 4:34 PM on June 9, 2013

*other*subject; it was the only thing in school I had to "try" at in order to succeed, and I had no idea how to try (really.)Anyway, what worked for me at that age was approaching math from an area of strength for me. I loved reading and specifically reading nerdy stuff, and thus responded extremely well to the Sideways Arithmetic book. I actually walked away from it thinking it was what taught me math, but really it proved to me that I could

*do a good job*at math (it took forever for me to realize what the deal was with that book.)Anyway, you may want to try out some puzzle/game books and see if you can make numbers fun for him (without any direct connection to what he's being assigned to do in school.)

posted by SMPA at 4:34 PM on June 9, 2013

The card game Speed! is a really fun way to get fast on the multiplication tables. Each game only takes about 10 minutes. (I have a 10 yr old boy too - here in VA the multiplication tables are one big part of 4th grade math. Not having them memorized can really slow you down.)

posted by selfmedicating at 5:33 PM on June 9, 2013

posted by selfmedicating at 5:33 PM on June 9, 2013

Nthing anything by Marilyn Burns a million times, she is just amazing and has some incredible math games.

I have worked with 5th graders this past school year and I spent a lot of time teaching them math and helping the students who struggle the most with math. I found that they seemed to loose a little of their math-fear when playing games because there were other rules to focus on, not just mathy-things. Especially during the summer, I would try out as many different math games in the subjects you are trying to help him with, and you can build on his knowledge that way.

I would also try to look for ways to teach these concepts by focusing on the different learning styles of students. Howard Gardner's Multiple Inteligences theories ring true for many of the 5th graders I worked with last year and by helping them understand concepts by approaching them in different ways I was able to see growth in their math abilities. So for example, when learning about perimeter, if you could give him a few activities where he has to measure the perimeter of objects, that might be easier to do than to imagine something rather abstract.

memail me if you want any more ideas!

posted by ruhroh at 6:00 PM on June 9, 2013

I have worked with 5th graders this past school year and I spent a lot of time teaching them math and helping the students who struggle the most with math. I found that they seemed to loose a little of their math-fear when playing games because there were other rules to focus on, not just mathy-things. Especially during the summer, I would try out as many different math games in the subjects you are trying to help him with, and you can build on his knowledge that way.

I would also try to look for ways to teach these concepts by focusing on the different learning styles of students. Howard Gardner's Multiple Inteligences theories ring true for many of the 5th graders I worked with last year and by helping them understand concepts by approaching them in different ways I was able to see growth in their math abilities. So for example, when learning about perimeter, if you could give him a few activities where he has to measure the perimeter of objects, that might be easier to do than to imagine something rather abstract.

memail me if you want any more ideas!

posted by ruhroh at 6:00 PM on June 9, 2013

I think the teacher probably doesn't know what to tell you as obviously his classroom experience is not working for him. I find most kids aren't so math phobic one on one, if you are able to go slowly, and if you are super patient and good humored. Any adult stress will get conferred on to the kid and he will act out so you need to be stress free and confident he will eventually understand the topics.

Maybe make the time spent on math shorter but more frequent so he can't get to a meltdown stage. Like 15 min then something more pleasant for him. Also maybe get really easy workbooks so he can have mastery of the basics at home and build up some confidence. It doesn't matter whether you love math or not, it's the installation of confidence and competence.

But again, I don't know why you are expecting more advice from the teacher- you are actually there to fill in the blanks she is missing/unable to address due to the classroom setting! Unless you are in the classroom in which case I would just make sure you have careful notes and that you review the topics in a calm and quiet environment later, while alone with the student. Please let zero frustration show on your behalf- I think that's key.

posted by bquarters at 6:58 PM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe make the time spent on math shorter but more frequent so he can't get to a meltdown stage. Like 15 min then something more pleasant for him. Also maybe get really easy workbooks so he can have mastery of the basics at home and build up some confidence. It doesn't matter whether you love math or not, it's the installation of confidence and competence.

But again, I don't know why you are expecting more advice from the teacher- you are actually there to fill in the blanks she is missing/unable to address due to the classroom setting! Unless you are in the classroom in which case I would just make sure you have careful notes and that you review the topics in a calm and quiet environment later, while alone with the student. Please let zero frustration show on your behalf- I think that's key.

posted by bquarters at 6:58 PM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

ADHD can come with dyscalulia - which is like dyslexia for math. I am a dyscalculic without diagnosis myself and I struggled with math from early childhood. Giving my problem a name in my late 30s gave me some closure, but sadly not much help. If your child also has problems with spatial relations problems such as reading an analogue clock, he may be dyscalculic.

posted by Deodand at 7:13 PM on June 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

posted by Deodand at 7:13 PM on June 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

What worked for me as a math-anxious kid at that age was only looking at one problem or task at a time. Mom had me cover worksheets or textbook pages with a blank sheet of paper and only move it to reveal small sections. Class time was basically a waste (as it also was in the subjects I was ahead of grade level in), but I got enough learning done at home to keep up, and ended up in advanced math in high school.

posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:36 AM on June 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:36 AM on June 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I homeschooled my sons. My oldest has dyscalculia. He was routinely reduced to tears over math. I helped him get past his baggage and learn to appdeciate math.

Some things that helped:

I encouraged him to do the problems he could readily do and skip those he could not. After he answered the eight easy things, we would deal with the two that were guaranteed to make him cry. This helped him enormously to be able to finish, to have a sense of accomplishment, to minimize stress, etc.

I tried to find fun stuff to do. I wanted him to learn "math is your friend" more than I wanted him to learn to do problems. I did a lot of manipulatives and games. I bought "A tour of the calculus" and read that because he loves physics. It helped him a whole bunch. The take away for you: What does he love? Can you connect that to math? Cooking, fashion, engineering -- they all have mathematical aspects.

I have written a bit here about what we did:

http://www.kidslikemine.com/category/homeschooling/math/

posted by Michele in California at 7:41 AM on June 10, 2013

Some things that helped:

I encouraged him to do the problems he could readily do and skip those he could not. After he answered the eight easy things, we would deal with the two that were guaranteed to make him cry. This helped him enormously to be able to finish, to have a sense of accomplishment, to minimize stress, etc.

I tried to find fun stuff to do. I wanted him to learn "math is your friend" more than I wanted him to learn to do problems. I did a lot of manipulatives and games. I bought "A tour of the calculus" and read that because he loves physics. It helped him a whole bunch. The take away for you: What does he love? Can you connect that to math? Cooking, fashion, engineering -- they all have mathematical aspects.

I have written a bit here about what we did:

http://www.kidslikemine.com/category/homeschooling/math/

posted by Michele in California at 7:41 AM on June 10, 2013

I have ADHD that went undiagnosed until I was in college, and struggled tremendously with math when I was a kid. What allowed me to get a handle on it was emphasizing concepts over mere procedure and symbolic manipulation.

ADHD kids (and adults) have a lot of difficulty carrying out step-by-step processes in order without getting lost or forgetting steps, and this can make math class extremely frustrating for them. They may also lack the ability to engage with memorization tasks long enough and consistently enough to master the material. (The ability to "hyperfocus" is a symptom of ADHD, but hyperfocus manifests only when engaged in tasks that offer a high degree of intrinsic reward. I doubt math meets this criterion for your student -- at least not yet.)

What they

It's even worse for bright kids, because they may be accustomed to success in other areas, and the combination of embarrassment and impatience teaches them that math is something best avoided. But if you can interest him in the subject, emphasize fundamental concepts, and attempt to justify the procedures they're learning in math class to him, you may be surprised at how capable he turns out to be.

The best way to do these things probably depends on the kid, but I'll tell you what worked for me.

This book (

Here's another one (

By "emphasize fundamental concepts and attempt to justify the procedures", I mean that, at every step, you should explain

For what it's worth, I am, 15 years or so later, unable to consistently perform addition and multiplication on paper. I was able to pass my math classes, mostly with Bs and Cs, but I never achieved stellar grades. But now I work as an engineer in a math-heavy field. I can do this because being able to do math on paper is (surprise!) actually not that important or useful. The world is full of computers and calculators, and a deep understanding of mathematical concepts will take you a lot farther than the ability to crunch numbers with pencil and paper.

posted by my favorite orange at 12:12 PM on June 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

ADHD kids (and adults) have a lot of difficulty carrying out step-by-step processes in order without getting lost or forgetting steps, and this can make math class extremely frustrating for them. They may also lack the ability to engage with memorization tasks long enough and consistently enough to master the material. (The ability to "hyperfocus" is a symptom of ADHD, but hyperfocus manifests only when engaged in tasks that offer a high degree of intrinsic reward. I doubt math meets this criterion for your student -- at least not yet.)

What they

*don't*struggle with (at least, not more than anybody else) is understanding and reasoning about the mathematical concepts which underlie the things they're learning in class. But, because elementary and intermediate math education leans very heavily on learning to perform calculations on paper, kids with ADHD have a huge barrier to cross before they can catch sight of these underlying concepts.It's even worse for bright kids, because they may be accustomed to success in other areas, and the combination of embarrassment and impatience teaches them that math is something best avoided. But if you can interest him in the subject, emphasize fundamental concepts, and attempt to justify the procedures they're learning in math class to him, you may be surprised at how capable he turns out to be.

The best way to do these things probably depends on the kid, but I'll tell you what worked for me.

This book (

*The Mathematical Tourist*) engaged my interest when I was that age, and sparked a lifelong interest in math. It's aimed at an adult audience, but I think a 5th grader with strong reading skills can be expected to handle it. There's lots of cool pictures, too.Here's another one (

*The Mathematical Experience*), although if I recall correctly, the reading may be a little harder.*A Tour of the Calculus*, which Michele in California mentioned above, is also really good, and starts out dealing with pretty fundamental concepts. The word "calculus" may be a bit scary, though, so exercise caution.By "emphasize fundamental concepts and attempt to justify the procedures", I mean that, at every step, you should explain

*why*you're doing it. "Because that's how it's done" isn't a good answer. You may find that even you don't always know the answer, and when that happens, you and your student could try figuring it out together, like a puzzle. If he (and you) read some books like those those three above, you'll be better-equipped to approach questions like this. Vi Hart's YouTube channel is an awesome resource, too, and has an advantage over books in that it's delivered in bite-size chunks.For what it's worth, I am, 15 years or so later, unable to consistently perform addition and multiplication on paper. I was able to pass my math classes, mostly with Bs and Cs, but I never achieved stellar grades. But now I work as an engineer in a math-heavy field. I can do this because being able to do math on paper is (surprise!) actually not that important or useful. The world is full of computers and calculators, and a deep understanding of mathematical concepts will take you a lot farther than the ability to crunch numbers with pencil and paper.

posted by my favorite orange at 12:12 PM on June 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I will note a few things in follow up:

Graph paper is your friend for helping stay visually organized and do the calculations on paper.

A certain subset of kids find calculus

Focus on the concepts and let the kid use a calculator if it helps. The concepts matter way more than crunching the numbers. My son eventually got the concepts. He still can't crunch the numbers. It is nbd. He understands the important part better than most people who do not have his math disability.

posted by Michele in California at 2:53 PM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Graph paper is your friend for helping stay visually organized and do the calculations on paper.

A certain subset of kids find calculus

*easier*than the stuff you think of as "lower level" math. My son is one such kid. He would read A Tour of the Calculus with me just to watch me get a headache. It was the only math that came more naturally to him than to me. I hate calculus and dropped out of it in college. I played up the "I am so tortured" angle for all it was worth. Also: Go to a book store. Open the book up. It isn't what you think it is. The first few chapters are simply beautiful. I didn't start drowning until later.Focus on the concepts and let the kid use a calculator if it helps. The concepts matter way more than crunching the numbers. My son eventually got the concepts. He still can't crunch the numbers. It is nbd. He understands the important part better than most people who do not have his math disability.

posted by Michele in California at 2:53 PM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

If he watches videos on his own with Khan Academy, that might take some of the pressure off that he feels in a one-on-one session. Then he could work through math problems with you.

posted by yohko at 6:09 PM on June 10, 2013

posted by yohko at 6:09 PM on June 10, 2013

Response by poster: These answers have blown me away. Thank you so much for creating an incredible resource list as the foundation for our summer sessions. Don't be surprised if you find memails from me as I work through this list.

posted by ovenmitt at 7:23 PM on June 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

posted by ovenmitt at 7:23 PM on June 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

This thread is closed to new comments.

And here are a bunch of fun kids books! posted by These Birds of a Feather at 4:21 PM on June 9, 2013 [5 favorites]