Many of us know the feeling. The dreaded moment when a child is asked to do math homework and drama ensues.
Frustration with math is quite common among kids with learning and thinking differences. They have to rely on memory and process multiple steps, which can be tough for them.
And when kids are feeling anxious or lack confidence, it can be even harder for them to learn a new concept. Issues with working memory can intensify and make math problems extra hard to figure out.
It can help to connect new math concepts with ones that kids already understand. When you bring in math functions they already get, it can reduce or even remove roadblocks in their working memory. Plus research shows that when kids feel successful, they’re more likely to take risks and try something more challenging.
That’s why in my classroom, I approach new math concepts the same way I would approach exercise. I need to remind my muscles of the movements they’ll be doing. So I start off with something light and familiar, and then ease into more intense physical activity.
Warming up in math is very similar. So here’s a tip: Begin with a warm-up.
Start with an easy exercise that’s short, simple and engaging. For example, I like to start with a numbers game using a deck of cards.
Place 10 cards (no face cards) numbers side up on a flat surface. The objective is to roll two dice, or number cubes, and use the two numbers to “make” a value seen on one of the cards.
If a 2 and a 3 are rolled, the player can use 2 × 3 to make 6, or 2 + 3 to make 5, or 3 − 2 to make 1 (the Ace can represent 1). Each time a value is made, the card is removed.
Set a timer for no more than 5 minutes, and challenge your child to eliminate as many cards as she can before the time is up.
This particular activity focuses on number sense. It also helps kids practice different math functions like addition, subtraction and multiplication.
There are a bunch of variations of this game, so you can choose one that works for your child. For instance, you can have kids playing against one another, instead of timing one child alone. And if being timed makes your child feel stressed, you can skip the timer altogether.
You can also try using more or fewer cards at a time. Or you may even want to increase the number of dice.
Kids in grades 6 and up could also use the black and red cards to represent positive and negative values (this requires using multicolored dice, too).
The key to any warm-up activity is the following:
- Keep it short: You don’t want your child to burn out before getting to the main activity.
- Keep it simple: It’s meant to be a successful experience to build confidence and activate prior knowledge.
- Keep it engaging: Using games, riddles or fun ways to present answers can boost your child’s interest and motivation.
The goal is to get kids to access what they already know. This gives them the boost they need before working on a more challenging math assignment.
—Brendan R. Hodnett is a special education teacher in Middletown, New Jersey. He also works with New Jersey’s Brookdale Community College to provide professional development training to educators in math and special education instructional strategies.
- See how different aspects of a math problem can trip up kids with learning and thinking differences.
- Read about the difference between math anxiety and dyscalculia.
- And learn how a student with math issues keeps her anxiety in check.