Four Things a Parent Could Do to Help a Struggling Math Student

What can parents do when their child brings home a progress report that does not show much “progress” at all? Well, there are the traditional things a parent can do and then there are an overwhelming number of choices provided us by innovators in educational technology. Making the right choice is the quandary. How can parents be sure that the resource they choose will benefit their child and help the child make a breakthrough in learning? This post details my journey as a parent to help my son make progress in math.

I stared at the progress report, trying to make my frown into a smile. Even though his math grade had dropped seven points, he still had a grade in the high 80s. I focused on the positive first, telling him how proud I was of his science grade, which went up 10 points. I noted how proud I was of him for his music grade and writing grade, too.

Then, I took a deep breath and told him that while these were good grades, I was concerned about his math grade and comments from the teacher about his performance during writing.

My poor little man just looked down at the floor. He wasn’t pleased with his math grade, either, but seemed resigned. I asked him what was wrong. He explained that he just doesn’t “get math.” I felt transported back in time for a moment, hearing my own little voice tell my mother, “I don’t understand math! I’ll never understand it! I don’t know why I need to learn it!”

“Can you get help at school? Do you know if there is a tutoring program?” I asked, shaking off the vision. We had helped him with his homework. We had tried to help him push back his frustration, slowly read the questions, underline important information, and always check his work, for example. This did not seem to be helping as we had hoped.

“No, there’s nothing! No one can help me,” my son responded, exasperated. He truly was a little ticked that he could not get help at school. (Note to parents: Always verify the veracity of such statements.)

“What about writing? You were doing well and now I see that the teacher finds you are ‘unenthusiastic’ about writing.” I was reading the comment left by the teacher on the progress report as I spoke.

“Writing makes my hand hurt,” he said. Ah yes, a 10-year-old boy response if ever there was one. Now, if that pencil were actually a controller and could make Mario go faster in his “kart” as he wrote, he’d write all day.

At that moment, I decided I would tackle the math issue first. Once students get behind in math, it’s very difficult to help them to catch up. Since his writing grade was the same as the first marking period, I figured the lack of enthusiasm was an issue I could work on later. I made a plan.

My first step was to start with the traditional source of assistance. My first email was to the teacher. The results were quite positive. The teacher was willing to work with my son during class and to provide him tutoring. She also told me to tell him that she believes in him. Awwww….

Then, I decided to support my student by finding a connection between his interests and the concepts he needs to know. When I was preparing for a test recently and needed to brush up on algebra, I turned to Khan Academy. I loved it! It reminded me of MyMathLab, which was a program I used for a College Algebra course. I thought KA was fun and found the points system and accumulation of badges motivating.

I’m an English teacher. For me to spend hours on a site trying to brush up on algebra is shocking.

I decided that my son might like it, too, because he likes to earn points and badges. I was right. Before he knew it, an hour had passed and he was still interested in the exercises. More importantly, he was not getting frustrated if he got something wrong, like he does in class or during homework. He wanted those points and, by golly, he was going to get them.

An article about the dangers of “gamifying” math showed up in my inbox the day after Lucas first signed on to Khan Academy. Khan Academy, the author said, is dangerous because it ignores the whys of math (the meaning or purpose of the concepts) and focuses on procedures. I asked myself if it was wrong to allow my son to use Khan Academy.

After reflecting on the article, I still thought the site was a very valuable resource, but decided it was only part of the solution. The next step was to find opportunities to emphasize the math in every day activities. If I combined procedural practice with the understanding of concepts, I thought, then perhaps Lucas would fall in love with math again. Here are a couple of examples of ways we tricked Lucas into thinking mathematically.

  • Since Lucas loves money (he has more in his savings account than his parents do), I made a word problem out of the discount I received on gas when I use my grocery store gas rewards card. “So, if I just purchased fifteen gallons of gas and I had a seventy cent per gallon discount, how much money did I save?” I asked him on Sunday. About 10 seconds later, I heard from the backseat, “Ten dollars and fifty cents.” Well, hot diggety.
  • Lucas loves to cook, too. His Dad let him cook on Sunday. He cut vegetables, measured out sauce, figured out how many pounds of chicken he would need, and mixed together a breading for the chicken after measuring all the ingredients he would need. Without knowing it, he was having a conversation with his father about fractions and equations using fractions while they cooked.

I would really like to find a site or other resource that combines the procedural power of Khan Academy with the commitment to emphasizing math’s importance to everyday life. I’m sure there has to be something out there that I haven’t found yet, especially since most of my web quests are related to Language Arts. Most of the sites I have stumbled on have very useful games, and even more useful “homework help,” but if we truly want our kids to “get” math, I think we need to use resources that help them understand that math is as vital to our intellectual development and understanding of the world as protein is to our physical development.

The last step in my plan thus far was to bring my story to you, the Edudemic community, and ask for your help finding some more resources to help my struggling math student. So…any suggestions? Your suggestions will not only help me and Lucas, but anyone who reads this post.

Article Cited in This Post

Mathalicious Editors (2012). “Khan Academy: It’s Different This Time.” Retrieved February 12, 2012, from


  1. mathmischief

    February 17, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    I’ve found that online support services can be potentially useful, too. By having question forms, my blog has been able to develop resources that students want, which is a really great thing.

    Try if students need help that they can’t get off a traditional video site. :)

    • Heather Edick

      February 18, 2012 at 12:32 pm

      @mathmischief I will! I think I will ask my son to go there today and check it out. Thank you!

  2. Pingback: Four Things a Parent Could Do to Help a Struggling Math Student | So What's It All Mean?