How can I help my (nearly) seven year old son "get" maths?
July 30, 2008 3:00 AM   Subscribe

How can I help my 6 1/2 year old son to *get* maths? It hasn't clicked with him at all and I find myself getting frustrated with having to repeat really basic stuff when helping him with his homework. I'm not a maths genius myself and I really don't want to put him off by getting cranky because he's just not getting it. How do I help him get it?

He's a really very bright little fellow who can read exceptionally well and his vocabulary is excellent. He's good with words. It's numbers that he hasn't come to terms with yet. Reading the clock, money, simple addition (and subtraction); all of these things are not within his frame of reference at the moment. How can I help him get the decimal system? I figure that once he's got the whole 'there's only 9 numbers and zero and then you go up a notch and then another notch and so on' at least he'll have somewhere to work from.

He doesn't have to become a mathematician, I just want him to find a good place to start so it all makes some sense. At the moment, he's baffled.
posted by h00py to Education (35 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
First, did his teacher last school term seem concerned with his level? What was his/her advice?

Can he count to 10, 20, 100? Can he count by 10s, 5s, and 2s?

I don't see why you'd want to start with the decimal system. As I've read, the other stuff - telling time, addition/subtraction are the key areas to work on.

I'd suggest talking about math ALL the time so it becomes normalized to him. "How many beans are on your plate? Yes, 12! Now let's each eat one. Now how many are there if we ate 2?" Also, there are SO many kids books on basic math skills. Get a few from the library and add them to your normal day.
posted by k8t at 3:13 AM on July 30, 2008

I do think decimal comfort is good, but you can be sly about it. It's a hell of a lot more sensible that clock hands, which really do seem like voodoo math when you think about it.

For counting, addition, subtraction, money and decimals all at the same time, I suggest lots of kitchen table examples with coins. It's an easy game to play.

Just collect some dollar coins, a couple of dozen 10 cent coins, and a 10 dollar bill or two. That should be enough for all sorts of practice. Avoid the 5 and 20 and 50 cent coins for awhile: they're confusing and you should wait until the decimal basics are down cold.

(Suggested name for game: Cambio!)

K8t's example of making it a normal part of your day is also important, the same way your boy probably reads every single sign when you're out on the street together.
posted by rokusan at 3:22 AM on July 30, 2008

Another suggestion is to take it easy. He's got many years before getting to High School, and he's got plenty of time to get maths. Don't pressure him by talking maths all the time, or he will start hating it and that will forever stop him learning it.

I have two (grand?)cousins. None were good in school (aka very bottom of class). One was left to his own, and the other was pushed all the time by his dad. One learned all the stuff after he left school because he needed to and he was finally ready to learn and he became a successful businessman. The other became a lazy ass because he was never able to get past his hate of schooling.

Not all human beings are ready for math at 6.5 years old. Not making him hate it (and not making him feel like being stupid) is the most important thing.

My mother (who was a math teacher) used the trick of using games to introduce math to the less skilled pupils. You could consider playing card games etc instead of doing formal teaching. The math and the counting have to be very secondary to the game and to having fun. If he doesn't laugh while 'playing', you're doing it wrong.
posted by flif at 3:27 AM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Our daughter struggled with basic math around 8 years old and lots of friends recommended Kumon to us. I was skeptical but have to say it really helped my daughter. While the rest of her class was moving on to multiplication tables, etc, Kumon started my daughter back at the very beginning i.e. very simple addition and subtraction. She would do a ten minute assignment book each day and then go to the Kumon centre once a week to turn everything in and do another workbook. Her number bonds got really strong and once that clicked, her math skills just started progressing quickly and she's now caught up with her class. It also helped to give her some real confidence in math, which she was definitely lacking.

Might be worth a shot. Google Kumon Australia.
posted by gfrobe at 3:40 AM on July 30, 2008

I have a 3yo, not 6yo, but I do have a math nut in the house (Mr. Cocoa). He is really looking forward to using this book for the 5-8yo range: Family Math, by Jean Kerr Stanmark. We have the book for younger kids (4-8yo) and have used some of the activities inside. Not to build a math whiz, but because I'm home a lot with Toddler Cocoa, they are a nice set of things to do. Anyway, they might be a good way to integrate math in a fun and low pressure way.
posted by cocoagirl at 3:44 AM on July 30, 2008

Show him the money.

Link the things he wants to money. You want a cookie? How much does 1 cookie cost if the bag of 20 costs 1$?

Give him some money. Let him buy stuff. You want a toy? Here's 4$. How many toys can you get?
posted by ewkpates at 4:11 AM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

If part of the problem is that you think you aren't really a good person to help him, maybe you could advertise for a tutor? A student taking primary/early childhood education might be happy to get an hour or two a week helping a kid with his homework, and you wouldn't have to worry about your frustration/lack of comfort with maths getting through to him. Most unis in Brisbane have online student-union run employment boards.
posted by jacalata at 4:30 AM on July 30, 2008

You could look at the JUMP math program, but so far it's focused on grades 3 and up.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 4:53 AM on July 30, 2008

At that age my kids loved Treasure Math Storm - great way to get them to do the drilling it takes to really get math facts ingrained . Computer games and money were the two most effective ways we found to get early elementary age kids really engaged in math.
posted by leslies at 5:14 AM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

If your son is more of a hands-on learner (ie, needs practical or tactile examples), you might try this book by DeAnna Horstmeier. It's geared towards people with Down syndrome, but I saw her speak recently at the National Down Syndrome Congress and am fairly convinced that this is a good, solid, general approach.
posted by plinth at 5:29 AM on July 30, 2008

Six and a half isn't the magical age when everyone is supposed to know everything there is about basic math. Ease up and try not to get frustrated. Just do repetition for awhile. Basic math is just memorization. One thing that may help is to bind up the verbal with the visual. Don't just have him solve problems on paper. Write a problem on paper and recite it; 1+1=?. Also add it into this a practical example, showing separate pennies that together equal two.

Mix it up with examples from things he's interested in whether it is dinosaurs, robots, or cars. I'd work on getting the concept of whole numbers before you step off into the abstract universe of decimals.
posted by JJ86 at 5:55 AM on July 30, 2008

Something I finally figured out for myself in college was that "4 times 3" actually should be expressed as "4, 3 times."

It would've helped tremendously if someone had said that to me in 3rd grade (or whenever we started multiplication).
posted by bryanjbusch at 6:00 AM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Monopoly was a turning point for a 6-year-old friend o' mine. She had weak addition and half of multiplication tables memorized coming in. Rapid mental calculation of change, of rents, and seeing where she'd land brought huge insights and enthusiasm for developing her arithmetic skills, especially subtraction and place value. (It's fortuitous that the classic board has ten squares on a side from corner up to next corner.) Now she's keen to do know which properties and strategies are most profitable. Donald Trump, watch out.

I'm not a maths genius myself...
It will be years before any deficit on your part shows. If you don't have a deficit now, pretend that you do! The best maths teachers I' know have a knack for leading students to a pattern, mumbling, "I wonder why that is..." and letting the students figure it out. These teachers insist on memorizing fundamentals. They as a rule teach the "how" first, and get to the "why" at just the right time later.
posted by gregoreo at 6:21 AM on July 30, 2008

'there's only 9 numbers and zero and then you go up a notch and then another notch and so on'

For what it's worth, I'm mildly dyslexic, have always struggled with math, and that way of looking at numbers still makes my brain reel. That isn't how I see math at all. My entire understanding of the decimal system comes from a model of 100 pennies making a dollar. As I got older I understood that each of the pennies could also be broken into 100, even though we couldn't see the tiny pieces.

Addition and subtraction I learned also with pennies: how many are there on the floor? If you put three in your hand, how many are left?

The way I (still) do division would probably make you cry, so while I am the last qualified person to give advice on this, I would say that if your child is perhaps a visual learner, stop working with paper and get on the floor with stuff.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:24 AM on July 30, 2008

I sucked at Math all through my school career, and it's impacted my life in a negative way. My parents couldn't understand why I struggled with it because I excelled in other areas. I've just recently found out I have math dyslexia and it's been such a relief, because I really thought it was lack of drive and intelligence.

If my parents had paid closer attention when I tried to explain why it was so difficult, my life would be very different. I had dreams of being a medical doctor, but I would never have been able to handle the math work load.

I'm not saying that's an issue with your son, especially at his young age. But do keep it in mind. If he expresses frustration or shows avoidance, ask him why. I'd say really start paying attention from age 8 to 10. That's when it all went to hell for me.
posted by lootie777 at 7:33 AM on July 30, 2008

I'm now a math PhD student, but back in 3rd grade, I had lots of trouble learning multiplication tables. In fact, I had some sort of mental block about them until my dad explained that 2x7 was a shorthand for 2+2+2+2+2+2+2. I wasn't able to memorize the facts until I knew how to derive them.

I second all the above suggestions to incorporate basic addition and multiplication in your everyday life, by counting objects and playing with coins and such. You can, for example, play games with sidewalk squares: You stand in one spot, and then you tell your son to walk ahead 7 squares, and then another 5, and how many squares away from you is he?

I wouldn't emphasize the decimal system too much at first. Think about the decimal system as just a convenient way of writing down numbers. I mean, sure, 12 is one 10 plus 2 ones, but it's also 2 sixes or a 5 plus a 7. Perhaps once he's comfortable with basic addition, the concept of using addition to easily write down lots of big numbers seem more reasonable. Because really, the decimal system's 12 is just shorthand for "the number you get by adding 10 and 2".

Don't worry if he doesn't always remember things. Give him some prompting, or ask him to think about it, and go over things together. For example, once he's on the seventh square, have him count up from there as he walks the next five squares ahead of you. At this point, understanding how to get 7+5=12 is more important than knowing it instantly. (Computer games and such are good for reinforcing memorization once he understands stuff.)

Good luck!
posted by matematichica at 7:36 AM on July 30, 2008

How can I help him get the decimal system? I figure that once he's got the whole 'there's only 9 numbers and zero and then you go up a notch and then another notch and so on' at least he'll have somewhere to work from.

There's YOUR problem right there. At 6.5 years of age, explaining arithmetic in terms of the decimal system is developmentally inappropriate. Trying to get him to understand math abstractly and conceptually will just turn him off of math, and instill in him a belief that he is no good at it. Think about it. When he started learning to speak (or read), did you teach him grammar first than the words, or did you teach him the words? This is a table. This is a dog. This is a cat. Et cetera. And he learned the words, dog, cat, table, right? Then, eventually, he spoke in sentences. Arithmetic is exactly the same thing. Expecting him to get the whole 'there's only 9 numbers and zero and then you go up a notch and then another notch and so on' is akin to teaching a baby to talk by saying, "There's nouns, and there's verbs, and then you put the two together and have a sentence."

Give him simple addition problems and simple subtraction problems. Start with less than 10. Kumon works because they emphasize basic drills. And that's what kids need at this age--basic drills and repetition, in the same way that babies learn to speak by repeating the same sounds over and over again. Use fingers, pictures of apples, cookies, what have you, to explain addition and subtraction in concrete terms, not abstract terms. Make everything concrete, because doing it otherwise will just frustrate him.

Also, in the meantime, make sure that you are also providing him with a math-rich environment. He's probably advanced in the languages because you were able to provide him with a linguistically rich environment by speaking with him, reading to him, etc. Math is the same way. Integrate it into your everyday interactions. "Snack will be at 3:30. That's when the short hand has moved half-way in between 3 and 4, and the long hand has moved half way around the clock." "Let's read one more chapter of this book together. We've read 3 chapters so far, so if we read one more, that's 3 plus1, so that's 4 total that we'll have read." And use your fingers every time so that it's concrete.

One more thing. In providing him with a "math-rich" environment, make sure that he has toys that he plays with that are mathematical. I don't mean flashcards and things like that, but interactive toys, like Legos and other building block-like toys. It's impossible to building anything out of Legos without math.

I know it's a very lengthy response. But I've encountered so many kids, smart kids, and grown ups too, who think that they are no good at math, when the problem has been the instruction of math all along.
posted by jujube at 8:14 AM on July 30, 2008 [4 favorites]

Kumon took my sister from behind her class to well ahead in a couple of years. If you're worried about his skills, send him there. Teaching kids how to do math is what they do, and they're extremely good at it. Better than most parents, that's for sure.
posted by Dasein at 8:39 AM on July 30, 2008

A little historical aside: it took adult humans thousands of years to develop zero and the decimal system. I wouldn't worry about your 6½ year old not getting it yet, especially if as you say he's obviously bright otherwise.

One thought did occur to me, though: in regards to reading a clock, have you ever shown him a sundial? That might help to convey the idea that the reading on the clock is an analogy to the time of day.
posted by XMLicious at 8:56 AM on July 30, 2008

I remember in grade 1 or 2 the teacher teaching us about Base Ten, what our numer system is based on. She had bundles of 10 sticks tied together, and I think she showed us that, like, if you have 5 of those bundles, you have 50 sticks, and so on. I remeber that being really interesting, and I think it would help with the decimal system. If you find yourself getting frustrated, could you afford a tutor? Or maybe an aunt or something who is good at explaining things?
posted by Penelope at 9:15 AM on July 30, 2008

I get what jujube is saying and mostly agree, but like mathematicachica, I had a hard time "getting" math as well, and wish dearly that someone had pointed me toward some abstract/conceptual principles at a younger age. Math was just trying very hard to remember steps over and over that didn't really make a lot of sense to me. When I finally stumbled into a little theory, I could put it together with the memorized stuff and the lightbulb went on.

Anyway, my suggestion, h00py, is music. Does his school offer any instrument lessons or chorus? Like Legos, music is an inherently math-rich activity.

Nthing the "100 pennies in a dollar," rather than "only 9 numbers" approach.
posted by desuetude at 9:18 AM on July 30, 2008

You might try a more multimedia approach. I was an aural learner growing up and my dad helped me with math by using a sound to indicate each 1 in a group; so, 5 was 5 tones, etc. In our case it was the broken windshield cleaner button on a 1977 Subaru; for others it may be different :)

If helped me as my eyesight was always poor; as a kid, visual learning didn't work for me. Even today if I'm counting a large number of items I'll tap something for each item and it helps me keep track.
posted by justnathan at 9:27 AM on July 30, 2008

My son loved the Reader Rabbit's Math Age 6-9 game at that age and I'm convince they helped tremendously in developing his basic arithmetic skills and understanding of basic math.
posted by bluefrog at 9:31 AM on July 30, 2008

Our 6.5 year old is having the same difficulty. He likes simple math problems, but doesn't get place value too well.

But then, nor is he being taught it at this age. It seems too young to me.

A couple of things do make him think about it regularly, however:

1) Does he have enough "Lego coins" in Lego Star Wars (the video game) to buy the various character prizes? He doesn't get very well the fact that 200,000 is NOT bigger than 1,000,000. However, it's an opportunity to discuss it, and he's gradually getting better. You can directly compare the place value of digits in his score (at the top of the screen) with digits in the purchase price required (at the bottom of the screen).

2) He plays "Top Trumps" with the (again!) Star Wars characters. For those who don't know, this is a card game where players compare various statistics about the characters on their card, with other players cards. For instance, Yoda is 0.66 meters high, but Amidala is 1.65 meters high, whereas Yoda has oodles more Jedi powers. He is starting to learn that 1.9 meters is NOT 19 meters, and that 2.06 is not 2.60 and is therefore less than 2.16, etc, etc. through this method. There are different Top Trumps card decks with different themed cards, not all having statistics with decimal points in, but some having other challenging sizes of numbers (like thousands, etc.)

In neither case does he realize he's *doing* math.

posted by blue_wardrobe at 9:54 AM on July 30, 2008

Consider he might have what I do - dyscalculia. All my schooling life was filled with people convinced I could "just get it" if I tried harder. It's not always the case - at least with traditional methods.
posted by agregoli at 10:03 AM on July 30, 2008

at that age I was totally into Cuisenaire rods. Four is still a kind of purplish colour for me ...
posted by scruss at 10:09 AM on July 30, 2008

It's important to note that clinical dyscalculia is extremely rare; if I'm recalling correctly its frequency is considerably lower than that of dyslexia.

(Not expressing skepticism that agregoli has it, I'm just saying that people should be hesitant in associating dyscalculia with any given instance of finding mathematics challenging; that's a subject that is both difficult to learn and difficult to teach.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:27 AM on July 30, 2008

Math is abstraction. So, instead of thinking about ". . ." we think about "3 dots." And then, instead of thinking about "3 dots" or "3 apples" or "three shoes," we just think about "3." It's possible to understand things like "3 + 4 = 7" without understanding how this relates to real objects in the world, but it's a lot harder. To make math easier, you build up from real objects you can interact with to the numbers we use to symbolize them.

So, I have: *** (three asterisks)
Then, I get: ** (two asterisks)
Well, what do you know! Now, if you look at how many asterisks I have, there are five of them! 3 + 2 = 5, why? Because if you start out with *** and then get **, the amount of asterisks you have is five.

So, use real objects. Draw pictures. Count out the minutes during commercial breaks during TV shows (to get the idea of increments of time passing). This will get across the ideas of what numbers are, and why we use them. That's the basic building block upon which all the rest of mathematics must rest -- that they are just abstract ways of thinking about these very basic things.
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:51 AM on July 30, 2008

What is your son particularly interested in? Use that for your examples; we all learn better when it's tied in to something we already know and care about. Is he into dinosaurs? Count the T Rexes!
posted by languagehat at 12:08 PM on July 30, 2008

I disagree with those posters who say that a concept of the decimal system is developmentally inappropriate for a 6 and a half year old. At the Montessori school I went to concepts of the decimal system were introduced in a natural manner using beads. This was at age 4-5. There were individual beads representing ones, 10 beads connected to make a line to represent tens, squares of a hundred beads representing hundreds and cubes of 1000 beads representing thousands. To do an addition problem between say 2342 and 1567, I would first count out the two numbers in cubes, squares, lines and ones and then start adding the two sets together starting with the ones. So in this case 7 ones from one number and the 2 ones from the other number made a total of 9 ones. Then I would add the tens place -- 6 lines from one number and 4 lines from the other made a total of 10 lines -- I could then exchange these 10 lines for a single square and so on. The place value system and the process of addition became a lot clearer conceptually for me through this exercise. Perhaps something similar could be devised for your son.
posted by peacheater at 12:32 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with using something tangible. "Four" is no different than any other word until you learn to associate it with four objects. Using marbles, toothpicks, matchbox cars, whatever. Work on that one to one correlation first. (3 boats is boat, boat, boat).

And when you're getting frustrated, take a break!
posted by agentwills at 12:56 PM on July 30, 2008

Many good ideas. For me, the game of darts was cathartic. I loved throwing sharp pointy things at a target and score is kept by adding the darts score and subtracting this total from either 300 or 700. with the double ring and triple ring just to keep a tiny bit of multiplication on the table. After much score keeping (only sober one in the room) I eventually got really good and quick at basic math. Still grateful after all these years in my carreer of woodworking
posted by Redhush at 1:37 PM on July 30, 2008

When our kids were little, we made maths a part of every day life. One of the little traditions was to pretend that kids were in a space shuttle when they went to bed, and so we counted down to zero and then turned the light out. We counted down in 1's, and later, 2's, 3's and 5s. We counted when we went shopping, let's get 5 lemons, and we unitised even before they could understand, (which cereal box is better value - this one cost $5 but only has 200 grams, and the $2 box has 100 grams), which kind of makes sense because we talked to the kids before they could understand English. We noticed numbers in the street (number plates, numbers in windows, numbers on street signs) and we would add or subtract them if we could find a good enough excuse. When we sat to play legos, we might say, I need two red blocks - Can you let me have two red blocks?

We did a similar thing with reading, and also had some computer games that my son taught himself to read from. Aha, we thought, education is solved, but different kids do things different ways, and our daughter remembered entire stories, without connecting the idea of reading the words. So by grade 2, she was still not reading, and it was frustrating. We'd sit every afternoon after school, and she'd open her book, and I felt like she wasn't trying, though no doubt she was, she just didn't "get it". Luckily her school had the support-a-reader program and by grade 7 she was doing well enough to write a story that put her in the top 5% of the state. Oh, and she also works harder at school than her brother ever did, and gets better marks as a result, because she knows how to work, instead of just effortless picking stuff up.

So, along with all the great advice above, I suggest making maths part of the every day. Count everything. Good luck h00py, and don't worry too much. Hopefully it'll all come together over the next few years.
posted by b33j at 3:07 PM on July 30, 2008

Thanks for the advice, everyone. You've given me some really good ideas (and added incentive to start the massive lego collection I've been planning for some time now). I really like the idea of adding a tangible and visual aspect to the concept of numbers. I remember using coloured counting rods in my first years of school and although I can't remember exactly how they were used, I do remember that they were helpful.

I've always given numbers little personalities (like seven is stern, eight is wise and four is happy) which is apropos of nothing, probably, but I really want my son to not be scared of maths, which is starting to happen because he feels totally out of his depth. I'm looking forward to giving a lot of the ideas in this thread a go.

Thanks again!
posted by h00py at 6:26 PM on July 30, 2008

Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling - One of my favorite reads about teaching.

In the example they are using questions to teach binary to children that already understand base-10 arithmetic, but I bet you can read it and get some insight into helping your child grasp it.

Make it fun and don't get frustrated!
posted by mincus at 1:00 PM on July 31, 2008

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