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Making it all add up: what to do when maths becomes a burden

Maths is often regarded as difficult, tiresome or even useless. In fact, the subject frequently receives negative press...

08.04.2021

Maths is often regarded as difficult, tiresome or even useless. In fact, the subject frequently receives negative press from adults, with notorious quotes deeming maths the bane of one’s own childhood or unhelpful statements such as: ‘You’ll never actually need that…’

Many children develop a true fear of maths from an early age, perhaps due to an unforgettable moment of panic in front of their peers, when they could not answer an ‘easy’ question; maybe older siblings have not particularly enjoyed the subject either or parents have unconsciously sent negative vibes when they themselves have struggled to explain homework tasks. 

Given such misconceptions of its complexity and fundamental value, how can we help our children to truly embrace mathematics and thrive in their exploration of number, shape and problem solving in daily life?

Moreover, how can we promote an efficient and enjoyable learning journey right from counting songs in the Early Years Foundation Stage, through to calculating the mean value by the end of Key Stage Two, ensuring a smooth transition into secondary school territory?

The answer is threefold:

  • Firstly, we have a universal responsibility to unlock the fun factor in maths and encourage children to experience the thrill of effectively solving puzzles and reasoning.
  • Secondly, both teachers and parents or caregivers alike should endeavour to be as active as possible (whenever possible), in tracking their child’s progress and providing opportunities to explore maths in the wider world.
  • Thirdly, teaching should be differentiated; each child should be taught at a suitable level and pace.

Tracking and communicating progress can unintentionally be misleading, as some children perform excellently in class and in assessments, however, fail to retain information or apply it to scenarios out of the classroom bubble. Others may struggle to complete more structured exercises or test papers, yet be exceptional problem solvers and able to apply knowledge in out-of-context situations. 

Teachers have the unimaginably challenging job of monitoring progress and providing information to parents and subsequent teachers; they must acknowledge both achievement and also identify next steps. As with all subjects, some newly learnt knowledge may be forgotten or require further input before being truly acquired and retained. Therefore, it can often be disheartening for parents, when after beaming over a school report, their child struggles to perform times table chants to grandparents or instantaneously work out change or special offers in the supermarket. Similarly, parents may feel discouraged by indications of progress being ‘below expected,’ when at home, their child regularly astounds them with their ability to reason mathematically or create impressive constructions from homemade 3D models. 

But why do teacher and parental expectations and perceptions sometimes fail to align?

Teachers strive to quantitively assess content covered and grade accordingly, however, effort and discovery are also taken into account. The framework of the mathematics curriculum combines many strands of learning that act as building blocks or springboards to successive stages. Parents should, therefore, not be alarmed if some individual concepts take longer to sink in. In fact, the maths programme relies on the revisiting and expansion of areas throughout a child’s education and adequate progression is achieved when concepts have been fully consolidated, often spanning across key stages.

Cause for concern naturally arises at times, along with incidences where maths intervention or wider support is required, notwithstanding the individual educational or special educational needs of some students.

It is paramount for both teachers and parents to address any struggles early on, in order to offer help and remedy them as soon as possible, before taking on new material. Moving on too soon is what often hinders students; we must always prioritise the basics first and fill in any gaps.

Reception & Key Stage 1

As mentioned, maths tuition follows a structured approach leading to mathematical fluency of fundamental areas, along with conceptual awareness, reasoning strategies and the ability to solve problems. From Reception, children begin to make comparisons, subitise and recognise patterns, before moving on to explore the four operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division), through developing practice with whole numbers and place values in Key Stage One. Shape, space and measure are also key players, along with fostering a sound understanding of number bounds to 20 and times table recall, counting in 2’s, 3’s, 5’s and 10’s.

Lower Key Stage 2

Children who are comfortably ready to tackle Lower Key Stage Two (years 3 & 4), will ideally have explored the above concepts, in addition to recognising simple fractions, further vocabulary of position and direction and be familiar with the properties of 2D and 3D shapes. A firm grasp of odd and even numbers along with confidence in the aforementioned times tables, should also set parents’ minds at rest that their child is happily on track. 

Lower Key Stage Two paves a path to reinforce and expand knowledge of whole numbers (up to 1000), number facts and place values, including an introduction to decimal notation of tenths and hundredths, in relation to division, fractions, decimals and degrees of accuracy. Activities should provide opportunity for analysis and the exploration of connections and relationships between numbers, quantities, shapes and patterns. Problem solving will include time, money and various measurements. Children will even investigate graphical representation of certain statistics along with learning all multiplication tables up to and including the 12 times table. This non-exhaustive list should also acknowledge the investigation of angles in shapes, basic inequalities and calculations using column methods. 

The best way to make sure that your child is up to date and coping well, is to frequently communicate with both them and their teachers and effectively address any issues. Each year provides a foundation for the next and as long as children are attentive and comfortable with activities to practise areas, then one should feel confident about their next steps. Cross-curricular links and strands of learning will develop as children move between year groups, hence parents should take advice and guidance from teachers seriously and encourage children to revisit, revise and practise any problematic areas. This will enhance learning and give children the necessary self-assurance and motivation to enter their next year group and also nurture confidence to ask for help and avoid pressure, fear or a silent struggle. 

The necessity to inspire sound number knowledge and look for shapes and patterns in our everyday environment, along with being able to tell the time, handle money, measure out ingredients and chronologically follow recipes or instructions is invaluable. Furthermore, parents should never turn a blind eye to the importance of learning tables, given that their value is irreplaceable in understanding fractions, percentages, ratios, graph scales, perimeters and areas and algebraic representation. When a child is struggling with times tables or cannot apply them to problems aside from their regular chants or songs, then supplementary practice is needed.

Upper Key Stage 2

Upper Key Stage Two (years 5 and 6) directly builds on learning from the lower stages, hence why progress can easily be monitored when children are periodically given opportunities to demonstrate their understanding through mental arithmetic quizzes, hands-on activities and stimulating exercises. By the end of their primary school learning journey, children will have expanded their mathematical toolbox further, enabling them to make more complex connections between components of the number system, including both written and mental calculations. They will broaden their knowledge of geometry, along with algebra, place values of seven-digit numbers, rounding, Roman numerals, ratio and proportion and long methods of multiplication and division… (to name but a few).

We can clearly see that the best advice to parents revolves around strong communication and paying attention to teacher advice, their own instincts and a child’s plea (albeit silent) for help. There is no shame in revisiting areas; in fact, it could be the key to accomplishment. Most schools offer children plentiful tools to succeed, when applied thoughtfully, allowing pupils the time and space needed to develop and grow at their own pace. It is vital to consolidate areas before moving on as mathematical knowledge and reasoning skills evolve alongside a child’s age, maturity and ability. Their awareness of problem solving in the wider world is also priceless and parents can almost effortlessly check understanding and allow their children to celebrate their own learning, by using their skills day-to-day. 

If a certain concept is causing distress or confusion, then take a step back and check for cracks in the foundations. Could that area problem be resolved more effectively with some multiplication revision? Perhaps we could practise fractions as we slice up our pizza? What percentage of our family has brown eyes?

Parents should take great reassurance in their own ability to track progress at home in this way, encouraging practical learners who can appreciate maths at the park, constructing with Lego, or even checking the speedometer in the car… and don’t forget, the maths curriculum is designed to return to and enhance material accordingly, providing resources at different levels and catering for a range of needs. If your child is working at the correct level and pace for them, then all should be well. 

About the author: Melissa Harvey is a multi-lingual teacher, private tutor and educational writer.

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