fun with math signs

We’ve all been there. We’re trying our best to help a child with math homework and we just can’t seem to capture his attention. The lesson needs to be taught, or the homework needs to be done, but the one who is supposed to be learning and doing is interested in everything but that paper in front of him. What to do?

You have two options. One, you can be the boss … remind your child that he has to do the work, no ifs, ands, or buts. Tried that already! How’d it work? In my experience, that’s a sure way to heighten resistance and make a child resent doing homework.

The other option is to let him exercise his free will, that is, give him choices. Here are a couple of examples from my tutoring practice.

4th Grader

Tom is 9, autistic, and home schooled. When I show up at his house, I have not one, but two, bags full of math-related stuff in hand. One is packed with hands-on activities; the other contains books. I also come prepared with a rough lesson plan and—here’s the key—each item in the plan has at least two options for addressing that topic. So, every step of the way through a session, I offer Tom choices. The conversation goes something like this:


    Do you want to do geometry or fractions first?
    Great! Do you want to use the GeoBoard or Play-Doh?
    Would you rather play Pizza Fractions or Dominoes Fractions now?

And so it goes until we’ve done at least one activity in every area that I want to cover. And Tom enjoys every activity because he chose it.

Now let’s looks at a conversation with an older student. Mark is 13 and attends public school, so he usually has math homework that must be done. I’m also working with him on specific areas in which he needs extra work, such as percentages, so I bring my own worksheets for these areas. A conversation with him goes more like this.

7th Grader


    Do you want to tackle homework problems or other areas first?
    Homework. (He always says “homework” because he likes to get it out of the way, but I still let him choose it.)
    (Later … while we’re doing homework, Mark sometimes gets a bit bored. When I see that, I give him a choice again.)
    Would you rather skip to some other problems and come back to these?
    No problem! We can finish these later.
    (Now the homework problems are done.)
    Do you want to work on percentages first or move on to a geometry review?
    Let’s do percentages.
    Okay. I have word problems and some regular problems. Which do you want to start with?
    Regular problems.
    Great! We’ll work on the word problems after that.

In the end, we finish every single thing that I planned to do, but we do it in an order that appeals to Mark because he chose it. It’s a win-win!

A little flexibility goes a long way in a math session, and having choices is empowering, even for kids, or maybe especially for kids. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes!


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