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Second-grade math: Why it’s hard for kids

By Gretchen Vierstra, MA

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Second-grade math is often hard for kids — even for kids who didn’t have any difficulty before. So how is second-grade math different from first-grade math? 

In first grade, kids can use their fingers for most of the math they do. Kids are adding or subtracting single-digit numbers, like 8 + 5. And they’re getting more comfortable with math symbols, like the +, –, and = signs.

When second grade comes around, there’s a big jump in conceptual math. Kids start working with place value. And they’re adding and subtracting two-digit numbers, like 18 + 25. 

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Kids also have to start doing math in their heads — they can’t use their fingers. Sometimes, they can use physical objects, like blocks, to solve problems. But eventually kids have to do the problems in their heads or with symbols on paper.

Plus, getting the right answer isn’t enough in second grade. Kids need to explain why it’s the right answer and show their work — sometimes in specific ways. This can be a huge challenge for many kids.

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“New math” methods in second grade

Even when kids can solve a problem, they may have trouble explaining how they got there. Lots of kids have trouble showing their work in specific ways. 

In second grade, kids learn to use “new math” methods like number lines, ten-frames, and bar graphs. These methods can help kids develop a better understanding of math. 

But sometimes, kids get stumped when asked to use these methods. And they may not understand how these methods can help them organize their work. 

Families: See examples of the “new math” methods kids learn in second grade. 

Educators: Learn more about visual representation and other elements of evidence-based instruction

For families: What to do next

Kids are learning new, less concrete material in second grade. And they’re learning it in ways that may not look like what you remember from when you were in school. This can make helping your child a little more difficult, but there are reasons why math is taught differently today .

If your child is having a hard time with math in second grade, jot down a few notes about what you’re seeing. Then you can talk with your child’s teacher . Together, you can figure out where your child needs help.

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