5 Tips to Help Kids Get Unstuck in Math | exSTEMsions

5 Tips to Help Kids Get Unstuck in Math

Getting stuck on a math problem feels terrible

If you’re a parent, then the following situation has probably happened to you. Your child is getting ready to begin work on a math problem, with pencil and paper at the ready, and various distractions pushed to the side.  The child reads the directions, and the problem, and the “helpful hints”, starts thinking, and… nothing happens. Well, nothing except a frustrated child staring at a blank piece of paper. It’s kinda like writer’s block, this “problem block”, and it is a very unpleasant feeling.  You might know how this feels yourself: something complicated needs to be figured out, you don’t know where to begin, and you start to panic just a little bit. And the more you’re stuck, the more that panicky feeling intensifies. It’s bad enough when it happens to you, but it’s even worse to watch it happen to your child.  And then, you as the parent are posed with a dilemma: how much do you help? How do you help without doing too much of the work yourself? How do you ease your child’s anxiety and panic, without taking away their chance to learn?

Help your child, but don’t do the problem for them!

Let’s be clear, it’s really important for a parent to resist the urge to help their child too much.  Because math is only truly learned when we actually do it, and if you take away from your child the opportunity to really do math (mostly) on their own, then you are also taking away their opportunity to learn.  Of course, we all learn from watching others do something, but with math, we aim for deep learning, which involves retaining what we learn.  And that retention is built through our own personal struggles with math, wrestling and taming complicated ideas on our own terms, and not by simply observing someone else.  Remember, watching football games doesn’t make you a good player, but actually playing football, a lot, sure can!  (We’ll have more to say on learning math by doing in a later blog.)  

So, before you begin trying our tips for getting your child unstuck, make sure your child has actually struggled with the problem, on their own, at least for a little while.  Working on a problem for 5 seconds and then giving up does not count as getting stuck!  We’ve all had experiences where we started completely blank, and then just had to sit with something a while before we could move forwards.  Kids have to learn to work through that too. If we save them from that struggle too early, they’ll miss out on learning this particular (and important!) form of patience.   

Struggle, but take a break too!

Of course, you know your child’s threshold for frustration best. We’re never going to advocate for letting a child just sit in frustration endlessly. The amount of help you give, and when you give it, is up to you, and what you think is best for the situation.

One general way to ease the unpleasantness of being stuck is just to encourage your child to take a break. Sometimes it’s really helpful to go think about something else for a while.  Have you ever taken a break from a puzzle you’ve been stuck on, and when you come back, everything is crystal clear?  It works like that in math too! It can be productive to switch gears and think about something different for a bit. Or just take a walk outside!  Sometimes we need to give our brains some space to relax and “reset”, to be able to return to the problem fresh, and ready to think.

Concrete tips for getting kids unstuck in a math problem:

So they stewed on the problem. And maybe they took a break, did other things, came back to it, and they’re still stuck. Now what?

There are lots of things you can do with your child to get them past that initial frustration.  Here we present just a small list of strategies you can try. If one doesn’t work, try another. Be patient.  Helping your kids learn for themselves can be a wonderful experience!


Tip 1 - Make sure your child understands what’s given, and what needs to be done.

Children often want to dive into a problem before they even understand what the problem is saying!  This results in all sorts of confusion, like starting with the wrong assumptions, or trying to figure out something that has nothing to do with the problem.  Before any heavy thinking starts, make sure your child understands the basic “structure” of the problem: where to start, and where to finish. Ask questions like: “What do you know from the problem? What kind of answer do you need to provide? What are you missing?”  Your questions can even simply be “What do you know? What don’t you know? What do you need to know?”  

And for those of you out there thinking, “of course everybody knows this is the way to start a problem,” well, maybe not. This is something kids have to learn to do, and it’s especially hard to do when they might be in a math panic.  Sometimes kids just need someone to remind them to be careful early on, and magic can happen!


Tip 2 - Start writing… anything!

Do not let your child stare endlessly at a blank piece of paper.  They need to start writing. But how can they write the correct solution when they don’t know what to do?  Exactly. You don’t ask your child to write the solution, or anything that’s even remotely correct. You just ask them to start writing.  No, not poetry or a short story, but any math thoughts that pop into their heads even vaguely related to the problem. Putting their mathy thoughts out there, so they can reflect on them, is really important.  At the very least, it allows your child to actually get started, and start feeling good about something; at its best, your child will make some important connections and discoveries, things that would be much harder to do in your head.  And, even if most of what is written ultimately isn’t used, or even right, there will be some nuggets of wisdom there to build on.  But how will they find those nuggets if they don’t even try?


Tip 3 - Draw something.

For one thing, drawing is fun, and it’s good to encourage your kids to have fun, even in math!  But does drawing help make headway in a problem? Well, is the problem a story of some kind, with characters and objects?  Are there geometry figures being talked about? Is there anything moving in the problem? Are amounts or sizes involved, numbers that could be interpreted as lines or shapes?  Then draw them! Representing mathematics visually is a great way to grab hold of an idea, make it concrete, and maybe even see something in a new light.

And if there isn’t anything obvious to draw in the problem, you can still ask your child to draw pictures that organize the information in the problem.  In any case, it’s not about being right. Really, the picture might not even be useful in the end, but it will start the thinking process. Either the picture will help, or it will show that drawing isn’t the right path for the problem, and that’s progress too!


Tip 4 - Pick a number, any number.

Is your problem swimming with unknowns and variables?  Does your problem look less like a math problem and more like an essay for English class?  Then plug in some numbers! Really! You can ask your child what her favorite number is, and then that can be substituted for one of those pesky letters (and for this kind of thinking, a great number to use is 0).  And what does this accomplish? Well, it simplifies the problem into something that hopefully will be more manageable. And if you can solve that simplified problem, you’ll have learned something about the more complicated problem you’re actually trying to solve.  Of course, you might learn that this is just not the best thing to do for this particular problem… but then you learn something, and that’s a start.


Tip 5 - Make a chart.

Is there anything in the problem that you can arrange in a chart or list?  A problem involving data or statistics would be a prime candidate for this kind of thinking, but you’d be surprised how charts can help in so many different types of problems.  Any kind of effort to organize what you know is bound to be helpful, if only to make things clearer in your head. But charts can also help you begin thinking about the solution to your problem, because when things are organized, you can begin to understand how these things behave, and what patterns might be hiding there, just waiting for you to find them!


We could go on and on, but in our experience one of the ideas above (or a few of them woven together) will very often help break through those first feelings of frustration. And the added benefit? Every time we successfully work through that panicky feeling of being stuck, we learn that next time, maybe we don’t have to panic so quickly!  And less panic equals more progress.

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Mathematical Thinking
Learning with Children