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Child Struggling with Math? 12 Signs and 7 Ways to Help

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Many parents around the world -- like yourself -- have a child struggling with math. Without proper resources or a solid support system, this reality can be daunting.

But, don’t worry because you’re not alone! One of the most common complaints among children who dislike math is it’s too difficult or that they’re not smart enough. Sadly, this belief is one that can severely impact any child’s success in mathematics.

Parents often remark the causes and symptoms can vary from child to child, which is why we’ll outline and help you understand:

  • What causes children to struggle with math
  • Common signs among children struggling with math
  • How parents and teachers can help a child struggling with math

Let's start helping your child succeed, instead of struggle, with math. 👇

3 Main causes of a child struggling with math

Father of two looks over at his kid doing homework on the carpet.

Math can be hard because it’s a cumulative subject — it builds upon itself year after year. This is why so many parents worry when their kids appear to get disengaged with or disconnected from math.

It’s vital for parents to know this doesn’t necessarily mean their child lacks intelligence or drive. Believe it or not, kids who have trouble understanding math are often putting in a great deal of effort — mentally and physically.

So, what exactly causes a child to struggle with math? Research has narrowed the answer down to three things:

Lacking building blocks

Child struggling with math.

As mentioned earlier, math is cumulative, so learning and understanding the basics is a must. If a child falls behind in one area due to a lack of understanding, moving on to more advanced topics will remain a challenge.

For example, if a child doesn’t yet understand the foundational knowledge of addition, it will be very difficult for them to grasp the concept of multiplication.

In 2015, the University of Akron published a study called “The Importance of a Strong Mathematical Foundation”. Researchers tested 39 ninth and tenth graders on fractions, ratios, and proportions. Participants had to complete questions ranging from third to seventh grade.

Only seven participants were able to pass the assessment. Seeing these results, study author Jasmine Wriston wrote:

[Students] were simply being taught mathematics concepts correlating to their current grade level and not based on the current mathematical knowledge they brought to class. Due to this, students were not mastering each grade level standard before continuing onto higher level instruction. This lack of mastery creates huge gaps in student understanding, hindering students from making the necessary content connections and gaining conceptual understanding.

Math anxiety

2nd grader struggling with math.

In the midst of hardship, it’s easy to feel as though we’re the only ones going through a certain problem. For parents of a child struggling with math, it’s no different. And while alarming, we hope parents everywhere find comfort in knowing their child is not the only one who may experience anxiety when it comes to math.

A feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations.

In fact, our guide to overcoming math anxiety highlights that around 93% of adult Americans experience math anxiety to varying degrees while 17% of Americans overall suffer from high levels of math anxiety.

Symptoms of math anxiety can include:

  • Avoidance
  • Lack of response
  • Low achievement
  • Negative self-talk
  • Feeling of permanency
  • Intense emotional reactions
  • Physiological effects like nervousness, clammy hands, increased heart rate, upset stomach and lightheadedness

And, for this reason, children can struggle with math from childhood all the way into adulthood.

Learning difficulties

There are numerous mathematics learning disabilities, including one of the more common ones: dyscalculia. Other names for it include math or number dyslexia.

According to Dr. Daniel Ansari, a professor in developmental cognitive neuroscience at Canada’s Western University, children with dyscalculia:

  • Often struggle with working memory
  • Have trouble remembering math facts
  • May understand the logic behind math facts, but not how or when to apply their knowledge to solve problems
  • May not understand quantities or concepts like biggest versus smallest, or the difference between the word five and numeral 5

Researchers aren’t entirely sure what causes dyscalculia but suspect it’s linked to the brain’s structure and function. Because there can be various factors involved — like one’s development, environment, genetic makeup or injury — how the symptoms show will likely vary as no two children are the same.

12 Signs of children struggling with math

1. Expresses negative comments about math

It can be tough to spot a child struggling with math. One of the more visible signs lies in what they say about the subject.

When your child says things like “I hate math” or “I’m not good at math,” and tries to avoid math-related activities, it’s usually a sign that they are struggling with the subject.

A child struggling with math on a chalkboard.

2. Gets anxious around math

Be it during a class, a test or working on a homework assignment, your child grows increasingly anxious when it’s time to do math.

Even though they may understand the concepts, math anxiety results in them forgetting what they’ve learned or how to apply them when the time comes.

3.  Grades that are lower in math but higher in other subjects

Whether you hear it from a teacher or see it on their report card, your child performs well in every subject — except math.

Lower math grades may lead them to focus on subjects they’re already succeeding in, and spend little time practicing or studying math.

4. Trouble connecting math families

As students learn more math facts, they should begin to see the relationship between certain numbers and equations.

Your child may be struggling with math if they do not see the connection between, for example, 2+3=5 and 5-3=2.

A child is getting math help with a parent.

5. Difficulty managing time

Time management is difficult for many people, including adults, so this sign can seem somewhat vague. Pay attention to see if your child has any trouble judging increments of time, adhering to set schedules, or reading clocks — analog or digital.

6. Trouble applying math concepts to real-world problems

Your child may grasp math concepts, but have a hard time seeing how they apply to things outside of the classroom. For example:

  • Finding out how many days remain until their birthday
  • Calculating the cost of something and how much change they should get back
  • Determining how much of a certain ingredient to use when helping you prepare food

P.S. Did you know that Prodigy Math features over 50,000 teacher-made questions that include real-world problems?

7. Mental math difficulty

While it can be helpful in early years, working out math problems using fingers to count could be a sign your child is struggling with math.

This is because as children get older, they’ll encounter bigger numbers and more advanced equations that require mental math practices — something that finger counting can discourage.

A child struggling with mental math and needing to use finger counting.

8. Doesn’t try to find alternative approaches to problems

The moment a roadblock arises when tackling a math problem, your child may get discouraged and move on before thinking about — or trying — another potential solution.

9. Trouble with basic math concepts and fact recall

Memory could have a significant impact on thinking with numbers. Despite having been taught foundational math concepts and facts in the past, your child has trouble remembering and applying them appropriately.

10. Trouble learning advanced math concepts and facts

Due to mathematics’ cumulative nature, making connections between prior and new lessons is key.

Having difficulty when building upon earlier math concepts will limit a child’s ability to anchor new math skills in a meaningful, long-lasting way.

A child, frustrated with math, places their head on their desk.

11. Difficulty paying attention

Every child learns differently — some can sit down at a desk and complete certain tasks, while others benefit from a more active, hands-on output.

If your child gets fidgety, loses their place in a problem, or seems mentally tired when doing math, they may be struggling with (the particular way they’re doing) math.

12. Not hitting milestones

Generally, children hit certain math milestones around the same age — but sometimes, they have trouble developing these skills at the same rate and fall behind.

Students in 1st and 2nd grade, for example, may struggle as they move on from counting by ones to twos, fives, and tens, while others pick it up with ease.

Tip: Use Prodigy's free parent account to get monthly reports about your child's math progress as they play Prodigy Math. See how it works here!

Check out the infographic below outlining math milestones and what you can expect at different ages!

Math Milestones infographic.
Click to expand

How to help a child struggling with math (in 7 ways)

As a parent, one of your biggest goals is to help your child succeed. It’s important to remember, however, that the first step to solving a problem is identifying it.

Having awareness of the signs above will help you identify any problems your child may be experiencing with math.

And to take it a step further, we’ve outlined seven tips you can use at home to help transform math into a subject your child loves instead of fears!

Make math fun

An example math question a child receives in a Prodigy Math Game battle.

For some children, all it takes is a change in perspective to transform math from something feared into something loved. A traditional pen-and-paper approach won’t always work and that’s when you need to get creative.

Tip: Consider reintroducing math to your child through a game-based lens. This can take on many forms like word problems, math books, math apps and more.

Or, try Prodigy Math Game — the engaging, curriculum-aligned math app used by over 100 million students and teachers. All in-game educational content is free and accessible at home or in class.

🌟 Plus, there are Membership plans available to maximize math practice and help you support your child's learning journey with ease. Becoming a member will unlock extra in-game rewards for your child and give you access to new parent features like Goals and Rewards, Practice Areas and Practice Sheets.

Testimonial from a math educator recommending Prodigy for struggling students.
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Find daily applications

Counting eggs for baking, an example of math in daily use.

Math is all around us and exists in our everyday lives, but do your children know that? Incorporating math into their day-to-day routine can help them understand — and appreciate — its relevance.

So, what are you waiting for? Start learning by doing!

Tip: Involve your child when it comes to activities like shopping, cooking, or gardening! Each of these real world applications involve numbers, facts, and concepts which can help solidify knowledge and understanding, as well as enjoyment in math.

Practice with your child daily

Parent supporting her child as they work through math homework.

On the surface, this tip may seem as simple as sitting beside your child while they do homework and ensuring they complete it. But, involvement in your child’s education has many benefits.

According to author and developmental psychologist Rebecca Fraser-Thill, parental involvement fosters academic achievement, improves social skills, and can increase self-esteem.

Tip: Set aside time to practice math for as little as 10 minutes each night. This will help reinforce what they’re learning in class and keep foundational concepts front-of-mind as teachers introduce them to more advanced concepts in class. Even if your child doesn’t have any math homework, try our free, colorful and printable worksheets:

Identify problem areas

Children using tablets to practice their math skills.

If you can identify them yourself, amazing! If not, get in touch with your child’s teacher for a more intimate and accurate idea of how you can help increase your child’s ability to succeed.

Tip: Working with your child’s teacher, come up with an at-home action plan. This is also an excellent opportunity to share the types of learning that works best for your child at home — something their teacher may not know.

Adopt a positive attitude

Two students solve 2nd grade math questions together.

While children can have negative attitudes toward math, your attitude toward the subject may need to change first. A 2017 study in School Science and Mathematics found that parents’ attitude toward mathematics can significantly predict students’ attitudes toward mathematics.

Most of the time, the negative attitude is simply because the students have told themselves they cannot do mathematics; they are never going to use it anyways; and so forth. School-based factors are compounded when they are reinforced at home, such as parents’ negative attitudes toward mathematics.

Tip: Even if you find math tricky, try your best to maintain a positive mindset about it around your child. Encourage your child when they get stuck and attempt to work through the problem together until you arrive at a solution! By practicing this, parents can become a positive influence on their child’s attitude toward math. As a result, this can increase children’s overall achievement and interest in math well into adulthood.

Get a tutor

A student with a tutor solving a math problem together.

Some parents have been out of school for a long time and are unfamiliar with certain teaching strategies. Others simply don’t feel comfortable being the “teacher” at home. This is why some parents consider going the online tutoring route.

Math Geek Mama outlines some helpful ways to find a math tutor for your child!

  1. Word of mouth from friends or family
  2. Check library or community centre bulletin boards
  3. Ask your child’s teacher or school counselor
  4. Find a local or online tutor using websites

Tip: A great way to make tutoring go further is to set learning goals and rewards with your child. If your child has a Prodigy Math Membership, you can set learning goals for them to achieve in our fun, engaging math game. When they successfully complete a goal, they'll receive in-game reward of your choice!

Find your Membership

Look into potential learning disabilities

School math class being led by a math teacher.

If your child does have a learning disability, the sooner you seek help the better!

It can be challenging to address and diagnose but, in the long run, receiving prompt and appropriate support can help ensure the best educational journey possible for your child.

Tip: If you haven’t already been contacted, connect with your child’s teacher or school administrator(s) to discuss how they can help. As learning disabilities tend to be identified in school, they may use a process called response to intervention to help pinpoint whether or not a child has a learning disability.

Final thoughts: Is your child struggling with math?

Struggling with math can make children feel like they’re not smart and affect their self-esteem. However, this is a common struggle.

What’s more, there are practical ways to help as you can see!One of the greatest things you can do today is to let them know that everyone struggles — even you — and that everyone also has strengths!

Share a personal example of a time you struggled with math and, if possible, how you overcame it. Then, try incorporating some of the helpful tips listed above.

Math may be a struggle, but going on this journey together will help increase your child’s confidence and motivate them to keep trying!

You want your child to succeed in math. We can help.

Yes, Prodigy Math Game is a curriculum-aligned, fantasy-inspired platform used by many kids. But it also comes with incredibly valuable tools and features for parents like you. Watch the one-minute video below:

Ready to motivate your and help support them along the way?

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