The majority of kids are behind in math. Even when they’re keeping pace with their peers, they likely aren’t excelling. Why is this, how can it be prevented and what can we do to reverse the damage if it’s already in place?
Statistics say that four out of five students enter kindergarten unprepared for the kindergarten curriculum. Kindergarten math curriculum starts at counting to 20, so students entering kindergarten need to know how to count to 10. Does that mean 80% of students don’t know how to count to 10?Yes. And it’s all because what the school means by counting to 10 and what parents mean by counting to 10 is different. For parents, if their child can verbally recite the numbers one through 10, then the child knows how to count to 10. For the school, counting to 10 means that the child can pick 10 items out of a pile and give them to you when you ask for 10 — no more, no less. They have a number in their head while counting and they know when to stop and what exactly 10 means in a real-life situation. If a child enters kindergarten knowing how to count to 10 by the school’s definition, they tend to do fairly well within our education system. Unfortunately, only the top 20% of income earners are preparing their children for kindergarten in this way, mainly because they can afford to send their child to preschool, where children learn how to count to 10 by this definition.
This early math readiness is significant because the research also shows that, at the preschool level, children that do more math are better readers, writers and problem solvers. They have better grammar and better reading comprehension.Another study showed that preschool math scores are a better predictor of third-grade reading scores than preschool reading scores, meaning the more math children do, the better they are at reading down the road. One other study showed that preschool math scores predict fifth-grade overall scores, not just fifth-grade math scores. There are several reasons for this.
Math tends to be like mental gymnastics: it exercises your mind. Children who are doing more math are practicing mental skills more often; just like you might practice a simple skill like chewing gum and walking at the same time, children can practice counting while holding a number in their head.
Once there’s a gap in your child’s math understanding, math anxiety builds due to that gap. If your child doesn’t understand the teacher during a math lesson, they just assume they’re not good at the subject. Our society tells them it’s okay if they are just “not a numbers person.” Once it is okay to not be good at one subject, it makes it easy to have excuses to be deficient in other subjects, too.
Because math concepts build on top of each other, if your child doesn’t understand math during their first year, they’re not going to understand things later on.Maybe they didn’t really understand counting, but now they’re on to addition and subtraction using memorization as a technique to pass. Once they get to multiplication, the children that were great at memorization look like they are doing well, but it is like if you entered a third-year biochem class after missing the first two years; everyone sounds like they’re speaking English, but you would not know what they’re talking about. Why is it that parents aren’t seeing this? Because children who rely on memorization don’t appear to have any issue with math. If a parent asks their child what 4x5 is and the child quickly answers with 20, the parent can check that off their mental list. There doesn’t appear to be any need to dig any deeper.But, if you put up four groups of five objects and the child has to count all the objects to know there are 20 items there, rather than recognizing that four groups of five equal 20, then you see that there is a problem. Take yourself back to that spot. You’re that third-grade student who’s not understanding anything that’s going on. What are you going to do? You’re going to use the strategy that you know will get you to the next level and everyone will help you with that strategy, because everyone — parents, teachers — are motivated to help you pass your test. What happens to students when they get to middle school, where individualized resources are more scarce and memorization maybe doesn’t work as well as it did when students are learning multiplication tables?When students get to the middle school level, this is where all the statistics discussed above catch up with them. Once they get into algebra, if they don’t understand the concept, it’s game over. There’s no way to memorize algebra. The best they can do is memorize mnemonics, but as soon as the equations become more complex, which happens fairly quickly, these strategies no longer work.
The large majority of children who can’t afford to go to preschool ends up creating a pipeline of kids that aren’t well-versed in basic math concepts and, later down the road, in more advanced math concepts. Seventy-five percent of high school students are not proficient in high school math. That’s the end result of the entire chain. And this is happening in a society that’s more computer-driven than ever. These children need to understand math in order to get into fields with higher-paying jobs. We tell children they can grow up to be anything they want, but to be honest, it’s over at kindergarten. Anything we can do to change that could empower people at an unimaginable scale. What do you need to know in order to just be good at, say, computer programming? It’s algebra, logic and problem-solving. When we say that 75% of students have a deficiency in high school, think about the impact it would have if you opened up that 75% of the population to the jobs they were promised, the jobs they want. What if we were able to graduate more engineers and scientists, and the business people and politicians of tomorrow could actually understand what they were saying?What sort of impact would that have on our society or this planet?
Parents have to take this into their own hands. When parents become involved with their child’s education, the outcomes for the student is always better. Fortunately, there are a lot of tools out there to help you take control of your child’s mathematics education.
Elephant Learning accurately tests and evaluates kids at different grade levels to see if they truly get what they should be learning. It then adjusts what they’re learning to ensure they understand math conceptually right from the start. The app provides educational games for the kids while also providing parents with reports and information on how the app is actually teaching a concept. Parents will find games to play with their child outside of the app that further support learning. We break it down for you, telling you how to help your child along every step of the way and showing you how to identify your child’s misunderstandings simply. For instance, rather than correcting them or showing them how to do the math problem correctly, ask them why they think they’re correct; you’re going to see what they misunderstand nearly immediately and be able to give them a hint on how to overcome it.This way, Elephant Learning is empowering to the student, but it’s also empowering to the parent. You no longer have to be afraid to take your child’s math education into your own hands.
Math anxiety — a fear of getting math concepts and problems wrong and the resulting avoidance of math because of that — is something I’ve seen many times over my life and not just in children. It’s just as prevalent in adults and, believe it or not, despite my PhD in math, I experienced math anxiety as a child, too. While some children allowed their math anxiety to grow into a lifelong avoidance of math, mine fueled my competitive spirit and led me to push ahead of my peers, learning advanced math concepts even when I wasn’t able to get into the advanced math classes my middle school offered.
It is never too late to understand math. At a young age, many of us had the experience of being told that “we are just not a numbers person.” Books have been written on this social phenomena, and half of all Americans report Math anxiety. As it turns out, mathematics is really about learning jargon, a jargon that is so fundamental to humanity that we consider it vocabulary.
At the end of the day, algebra comes down to these three steps: define, recognize and produce. No matter if your child is in middle school or a PhD math program, it’s all about defining (can you understand it?), recognizing (can you identify it?), and producing (can you use it to produce results or new research?). If you can help your child with these three aspects of algebra at home, they’ll be better set up for success in the classroom and the future.
Most students learn to multiply in school by memorizing their multiplication tables. There’s nothing wrong with memorizing multiplication tables, but a child must know what the multiplication tables mean. If they’re multiplying seven by six, they need to have that picture in the back of their head of six groups of seven or seven groups of six. If not, they don’t have a true understanding of what multiplication actually is and it won’t serve them later on in life.Take, for example, a child who knows that five times four is 20. She can solve the multiplication problem with ease.
In early elementary education, the first concepts that we work with are counting and comparisons — that is, quantity comparisons versus what's bigger and smaller. We might show a child an image of four objects and an image with 12 objects, and ask them to identify which has more or fewer. It's important for children to know the difference because it sets the stage for addition and subtraction.
Making math fun for your child within the confines of your everyday world is easy. Let’s say you’re walking down the sidewalk with your child and they say, “Oh, there’s a train.” That’s an opportunity for you to ask how many train cars they can see. How many engines are on the train? Even if it’s just their toys sitting out on the floor, you could ask them, “Can you give me three toy dogs right now?” Then your child has to identify what’s a dog, what’s not a dog and how many of them equal three.Take whatever your child can identify and formulate a math lesson that’s on their level.