Parent question: My son hates maths… what do I do?

My nine-year-old son is struggling with his maths homework. He is much better with writing, especially creative writing, and has great imagination. But he already decided that he is useless at maths and thinks he is stupid. We end up arguing about his maths homework every day. What do I do?

It seems that your son is willing to do the homework that he is able to do with reasonable effort – I wonder whether the maths homework he is given is too difficult for him right now. In order to progress you need to do two things- the first is to create a homework routine and the second to help him with his maths in a way that will make him feel good about himself.
Creating a routine around homework is the best way to avoid endless arguments! Establish a home rule for all children that fun activities such as electronic games or TV start only after homework is completed. When you do this, pleasurable activities become a reward for work. This rule solves the never-ending problem of trying to scrape your children off their favourite screens to do their homework.
For a rule like this to work, you need to discuss it with your partner, if you have one, and agree a strategy between you. Children usually do not like this home rule at first, but if parents stay determined and keep their cool they usually accept it. Children need routines – it helps them do the right thing. You can explain to your child that he will be able to enjoy his favourite activity with your blessing and no interference once he finishes what he has to do.
Your second task is to support your child with his maths, and this will take some effort. Short of taking him to a good tutor (which can be a good solution if you are not a math lover or have no patience for all this), I don’t know how this can be done by remote control! The following plan, devised by Noel Janis-Norton of the New Learning Centre, requires time and commitment from parents but, once parents become used to it, everyone benefits. Many families have used it successfully already. If you choose to take this on, you will need to explain to your son in advance what will happen, and be prepared to deal with some initials moans.
1. Preparation: Ask your son to show you what he is meant to be working on and explain to you what he needs to do. If he is not sure, ask him to show you the parts he does understands and can do, and then help him to understand how to continue. If he can do nothing on his homework page the work is probably too hard for him, and you will need to go back a step or two. There is no point in offering your son too many ‘hints’ or giving him the answers – this will make him feel inadequate, while at the same time give the teacher the impression that he can do more than he can. At the end of this preparation your child should know how to go about solving the questions. If you cannot achieve this, discuss this with his teacher sooner rather than later. If your child can tell you how he needs to progress he is ready for the next stage.
2. Independent work: Your son does the homework on his own, while you are busy doing something else. If you have more than one child, this could be the perfect time to prepare the next one for his homework.
3. Review: Once the work is completed, have a careful look, and make at least two positive comments about the work, even if it is not up to standard yet. Your praise needs to be detailed and specific – show that you are pleased with the correct answers and comment positively on presentation. Then point out just one mistake that you wish your child to correct. There is no point in making your child feel bad about things that are going to be too difficult to correct. It is much more important to take a long-term view and get him to improve gradually. When you have finished, get your child to say what he likes about his work and single out one little thing he might wish to correct.
4. Minor corrections: Your child corrects the homework accordingly (remember, he only has two small improvements to make.)
Once the homework is complete, your son will be free to enjoy the activities he likes. Ask the school how long they expect your child to work at home, and make sure he does not work for much longer. It is not good for children to study too long, and it may give the school the wrong impression about your child’s abilities. If homework is not complete, you can explain to the teacher why.
Be honest- acknowledge to your son that you know that maths is hard for him and that this is not fun right now! No point in trying to gloss over things. But also promise that maths is just one subject and remind him that there are plenty of other things he is good at. Praise his willingness to make an effort – we all have things we struggle with and with the effort we can overcome difficulties. So can he!
If you wish to know more about dealing with academic challenges, I highly recommend Noel Janis-Norton’s excellent book Could Do Better… How Parents Can Help Their Children Succeed in School (Barrington-Stoke, 2005).

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