Numbers Sense

How to know when your child needs help with math.

Many signs reveal whether your child would benefit from extra help in math, both in and out of school.

While poor grades in math are the most obvious sign that a student needs help, poor math grades happen for many reasons. And often a student has excellent grades in most subjects, yet struggles in math. A great hindrance to math success is the inability to effortlessly recall number facts, such as difficulty remembering rules for addition, subtraction, division and times tables. Visible signs, like a child counting on his fingers, indicate that effortless recall is lacking.

Addition and subtraction facts should be mastered by children by the end of 2nd or 3rd grade, and multiplication and division facts by the end of 3rd or 4th grade. If these arithmetic facts are not learned according to this time frame, intervention of some form should take place, preventing the student from falling further behind.

Parents need to be proactive. They need to confirm their children meet the milestones for math. Advanced classes assume fluidity with basic skills as math, more than any other subject, builds on previous concepts and skills.

Poor work and study habits thwart students from keeping up with their class work and homework. This happens with students of all ability levels. And too often, students gain admittance into a class or group when they lack the prerequisite knowledge necessary for success. With a phenomenon known as “social promotion,” students may progress from grade to grade and class to class, whether or not they have met the minimal requirements for passing. Obviously an unprepared math student will falter in the next grade or class.

The problem of inappropriate class placement has been exacerbated by international testing comparisons, most recently with the TIMSS and PISA reports. Student achievement in the United States has been found to be sub–par with respect to most of the developed world. As a result, American schools are increasingly pushed to “do better.” This intensifies the pressure to place students in advanced classes in earlier grades, even if the students are insufficiently prepared.

When students remain in a class for which they are unprepared for the entire school year, outside assistance is essential. By filling in the gaps, or addressing deficiencies of basic concepts and skills, in their previous learning, students gain a decent chance of staying afloat in the current class. However, a better choice is to let the student drop down one class level to work exclusively on the issues that are making the current class overly difficult. Either way, to help the student with specific problem areas, using non–school resources can offer significant support.

Unfortunately, math classes can be poorly taught. Because of the way material may be presented in classrooms, even the strongest students can walk out of class confused. The United States has a dearth of highly qualified math teachers. Many teachers without math as their primary or secondary area of study currently teach math at all levels in our schools. As a result of little or no training in the specifics of teaching math, teachers lack both fluency in mathematical knowledge and experience with effective teaching methods particular to math.

In addition, most school subjects have a predetermined curriculum with time limits for each topic. If a student doesn’t master a topic within a certain time frame, the class moves on nonetheless. Most outside assistance, like tutorial services and learning centers, allow students to progress at their own pace, thus making it possible for a student to eventually catch up and master the curriculum.

Look for signs besides low grades that might indicate that your child wants or needs guidance beyond the classroom. When students say, “I’m no good at math,” whether they are or not, it signals a serious self–esteem and academic issue that should be addressed when first noticed by a teacher or a parent. Students who do not feel up to par in math generally feel inadequate in the classroom, despite how they are progressing. Other times, the perceived problem with math is real. In both of these cases, outside assistance can be of great help.

Comments like “every new topic in math is different and confusing” and “I’ve never seen this before” strongly suggest that the student is not retaining previous material, and more importantly, is not internalizing and integrating the learning involved. This means the student is not connecting various topics, past and present, in the curriculum. And it’s thus difficult to establish the building blocks of knowledge necessary for long-term success in the math classroom.

For students with advanced math skills, many supplemental programs can also be beneficial. Because some kids aren’t sufficiently challenged by the work assigned in their current math class, they become “bored” with tasks. And, strange as it may seem, there are kids who love math and can’t get enough of it. The right program provides advanced math students with the challenging math content necessary to propel kids to new heights in their mathematical studies.

How students learn math in the primary grades has a long–lasting effect on their performance in math. It is critical that teachers and parents watch for signs of trouble in school so that appropriate actions can be taken to help students at the earliest sign of conflict.

Help with math outside of school usually involves the services of either a private tutor or a learning center. A tutor is good for short–term problems involving current class work and preparation for the next test. Learning centers are a good choice if the need is more comprehensive, either for re-mediation or enrichment.

In either case, the best way to find the right person or center is by getting a referral from a friend who has had a good experience with either. Absent a solid referral, going online and searching for a potential tutor or learning center in your area is your best choice. (For academic enrichment programs and tutors in your area, check out the Education Directory on

For learning centers, explore specific company Web sites to get an overall look at the company and the services offered. Then visit a center that appeals to you and suits your child’s needs. It is important to compare the program the center offers with other centers you are considering. Don’t compare just the price, as price is not always an indicator of quality. Instead, base your decision on how the learning center evaluates children, how it trains staff and how much individual attention your child will receive while at the center. 

With respect to tutors, it is not easy to tell if a tutor is good until you try his or her services. Look for someone who is serious about math and has a good sense of humor.

When you find a tutor or learning center that genuinely meets your child’s math needs and facilitates his or her learning, establish a long–term relationship. This way, your child always has a trusted resource he or she can count on in a time of need.