Supporting rising 3rd grader to not HATE math

One of the many casualties from the pandemic—and I concede it’s a minor one in the wake of a global pandemic—is my kid’s love of school and, specifically math. A BUSD student, she logged into her state math exam and promptly burst into tears. It turns out that in addition to not correcting her uploaded math homework, her teacher had not covered a great deal of the content on the test.  Our kid was upset and confused.

I’d like to think my child will enter her 3rd grade year and promptly fall in love with her teacher—one who would help her find her love of learning. But in all fairness to her teacher, whoever s/he may be, it’s completely unrealistic.  We’ll continue to do our best to support our kid’s education but I am wondering if anyone has any suggestions about how to get a rising 3rd grader to get over her hatred of math.

Thank you.

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I have so many thoughts about this! My own daughter sounds similar to yours and is now in 7th grade. It has been a multi-year project to keep her open to math in her life. I would like to say there is some magical program that will do it, but in our case, it has been my own work and messaging over many years. Big areas that have helped are...

1. pointing out math in the world and/or when she is using math or thinking mathematically. We are all using math all the time, for all kinds of things (comparing prices at the grocery store, figuring out what time to leave the house to arrive somewhere on time, etc.) Kids learn from school to think of math as some separate activity or mode of cognition. It's not. So just pointing it out and pointing out the ways that she is already using it successfully is really helpful.

2. Play lots of games together. If she's at all open to or interested in board games, there are a ton of them that build mathematical thinking skills. Some favorites for my family have been: Qwirkle, Set, Prime Climb, and Blokus. There are a lot of D&D-ish board games (e.g., Dragonwood) where kids are actually making decisions based on odds/probabilities. Sorry! and Trouble are terrific for practicing basic counting but also optimization. So play lots of games.

3. We give our daughter messages all the time that real math is so much more interesting than school math. In other areas, I would never throw her school/teachers under the bus, but honestly, in this one area, I believe our schools completely fail, and it's more important to me that my daughter stay open to having math in her life later than that she think highly of her school. So I am just really blunt about it. Math is super interesting. School is generally only focusing on one area of mathematics (successful and speedy computation), but there are all kinds of other skills kids will need if they want to move forward in math, including the ability to persist through confusion and difficulty, the ability to think deeply and be patient, a playful openness and a willingness to try things out and make mistakes, the ability to ask good questions and to just look at scenarios and wonder freely. These are all things that real mathematicians need but that our schools don't value at all (except for the rare exceptional teacher here and there).

4. We are opportunistic about diving into math with our kids when it comes up naturally in our lives. When my son was in 1st grade, he wondered if Santa could possibly be real, because how could he get to all the houses in one night? So we sat down with the kids and built some models to try to figure it out (how many kids are there just in the city of Oakland? How long might Santa spend at each house? Side question: how many cookies would Santa have to eat?) It was crazy fun, and the kids were willing to participate because they were keenly interested in the results. I am always on the lookout for opportunities like those and jump on them when they arise.

5. Kids stay open to subjects that they feel good at. If your daughter can have experiences where she gets to experience the thrill of victory, that can be huge. If she is not getting to experience that in school, you may need to provide that for her yourself. Bedtime math is a great, free app. You could look into after-school math circles or clubs. You could even start one - google crazy 8's, a free program offered by the Bedtime Math folks.

Good luck!

Have you thought about an educational therapist or psychologist? They can help with the subject learning and emotional aspects. I have a friend (personal relationship, thus I can't say I've used her services) who is specifically a licensed educational psychologist focused on supporting students in math, please see:

I'm sorry to hear that math was a casualty of 3rd grade during the pandemic.  We had a 3rd grader back when the pandemic started and we were able to introduce a lot of age-appropriate math while baking brownies etc.  When we gave up on public school for 4th grade, she was placed into a multi age classroom at a private school where 4th-6th graders were learning 5th or 6th grade math.  Kiddo was nervous and I double checked to make sure that we really were assigned a 5th grade textbook correctly.  The teachers assured us that many topics are revisited each year.  While your child may be a bit confused at times, I can assure you that at least in our case, it wasn't the end of the world.  Yes, there were gaps, but hopefully the new teacher or your child will make those known to you.

My kiddo HATED math and I have a graveyard full of broken pencils to show for it!  The stress of it just exacerbated the problem.  Then we found Ali Mansour at Firecracker Math and everything changed!  Ali helped my child develop so much math confidence and an actual appreciation for math!  We hired Ali last summer for one weekly private session, and my child, who was a full year behind in math prior to the summer, got 100% caught up and ended up being one of the strongest math students in their class last year.  Everytime we had a challenge in math class during the past school year, we did a session with Ali and magically, all the stress and anxiety of not understanding a new math skill would evaporate.  If you can get a few sessions with Ali, it could be a gamechanger.  

Recreational math— Origami, games like Ken-Ken, Set, Connect 4, Apples to Apples. The LHS bookstore has many books some more directly related to school math, some on broader topics. You could also check the Exploratorium website. School math tends to be very narrow, and often doesn’t include the early learning that prepares children for college math or applications— ie the connections between paper-folding and topology. 

Look for fun math games, as lfK suggests.  There are a bunch online you can do with regular dice.  We used Math Dice, which encourages some creative thinking with math while giving math-facts exercise.  Also consider Mancala, an ancient African game.  Lawrence Hall of Science (where we discovered Mancala) has a book and gift store with a lot of games that might work for you.

Second, build in rewards.  Nothing big, but lots of them.  It helps ease the unpleasantness of a distasteful task, and I think retrains the brain such that the task becomes more enjoyable.  Playing math games is a way of tying a reward (social interaction, the chance to win, etc.) right into doing the math.

For our daughter I got a bunch of colorful glass beads, all different, from a bead store -- they sell bead odds and ends sometimes by the scoop.  She got one or two for doing what we needed, and later could trade them in -- a few for a sparkler, more for a trip for ice cream, etc.  I know it sounds mercenary, but it's one of the behavioral-modification things they recommend for kids with ADHD (which she has).   If your son barely tolerates a math game, give him a prize for winning.  Give him rewards for doing his homework, for getting a better quiz score than he got last week, etc.