I Hate Math Homework

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“I can’t do this! I can’t do anything! This is stupid! I’m stupid. Everything is stupid, I quit!”


We’ve all witnessed these moments of utter frustration when kids feel daunted by an assignment, or even just the idea of homework, often even before the work comes out of the backpack. Their unhelpful, pessimistic sixth sense tells them that this really is impossible, then comes the melt down, the shut down, the collapsing into a heap at the kitchen table, the tears, the anger. The mess.  

What’s a parent to do?

If you’re like most parents, what you do starts out nicely enough: calmly reassuring, then coaxing, then pleading, then as your child’s resistance mounts, you quickly devolve into exasperation. The tough-love comes out and it’s not too pretty (or effective).   

We could launch into an escalating match of dueling catastrophizers (Why can’t he do this? If he can’t even handle 15 minutes of homework, how is he ever going to get through school, get a job—deal with life?! I can’t take it!), but thankfully, there are other choices!

While it seems like your child is being cranky, spoiled or just needs to toughen up—that’s missing the point (and you certainly won’t advance the cause by mentioning it).

Kids in these moments would love things to be different; they don’t want to act or feel this way—but their internal yikes button has been pushed, they are in amygdala overdrive, their brain has detected a threat and they are going to fight or flee, but in no way sit down and work. So caught up in their emotions and quick-assessment of the impossibility of their work, they’re stumped, they feel trapped, and they don’t know how to get out.

Kids have probably never loved homework, so that’s not new, but thanks to our fast-paced, immediate gratification culture, kids today think that learning and everything else that’s mildly challenging and not fun, shouldn’t be. The resilience and perseverance they show when playing videogames or looking for the perfect outfit is unavailable to them when it comes to schoolwork. They think that learning should be like voila! Instant success. No fuss, no muss. And when it’s not, they are convinced that their struggle is undeniable proof of their inadequacy and lack of intelligence— they can’t do it, they’ll never be able to do it, and… they’re stupid.

What’s our job? How do we reset the yikes button?

To begin with, we need reverse our children’s learning about learning. We need to teach kids that a little bit of struggle is a normal and expected part of anyone’s climb on the learning curve. Everyone. Yes, every single person. Very smart people go through the same thing—a lot. In fact. that’s how they get smarter. They just aren’t talking about it so kids don’t witness it, but it happens to "smart kids" too.

Struggle is not a sign of a problem, it’s a sign that new growth is ahead! A sign that mastery is on the other side of this struggle and that means that in a little bit they are going to know even more than they do right now. And when it comes to knowledge—more is more.

If kids knew to expect the struggle, and viewed it as temporary and manageable, and that on the other side of it is the aha moment of success and pride—well, they wouldn’t be so set on avoiding their work fearing that it will gobble them (and their self-esteem) up; they’d head in knowing that they will emerge triumphant soon (like they always do).

Great. But how do you teach this to a child who is falling apart on the floor?

Empathy, and a plan to do it differently next time. Job number one is to help your child get into the right mindset about work and learning and mistakes, but also creating a plan with your child to get into good work habits and patterns for success. Here are ideas to get you started.  

Reflect and Empathize Rather than Convince, Using the Red Pen Edit: Resist the urge to just “fix” or “downplay” your child’s distress. Instead, empathize with your child’s frustration—this doesn’t mean you agree with the reasons they are feeling the way they do. Your empathy will free them up to hear other points of view. Take the “I can’t!and edit in some qualifiers: “You’re feeling really frustrated right now.” “This looks really hard right now.” “You’re not feeling like you want to do this right now.” “This feels really overwhelming to you, right now.” “Your mind is telling you right now that this isn’t going to work.” Notice how these edits take away the authority of the negative thinking. “I can’t” sounds like a fact, irrevocable. Putting in the qualifiers shows how these ideas are just temporary—they are one interpretation among many possible alternatives.

Words like this get your child nodding in agreement, and that base of connection will provide the springboard for collaborating on your next move together. Without it, there’s no springboard; there’s just the gravity of your child’s resistance pulling you both down.

Relabel the Bad Guy:Rather than saying things like: “Why are you being so negative (or difficult)? Help your child get distance from their own feelings and don’t confuse your child with their negative exaggerating brain. Instead, help your child step back and say: “Your worry is really trying to take over,” or, “Your worry mind is really trying to make this hard for you; that’s not fair to you.” This also helps your child know that you are working with them, not against them.

Get Specific and Think in Parts: Anxious thinking supersizes small problems and makes them seem monumental, permanent and unchangeable. Help your child narrow down the problem from the “everything” that is wrong, and identify the one thing that’s really feeling daunting. Negative thinking speaks in absolutes. The antidote is using the word some: “Tell me some parts that are hard, some parts that are perhaps easier.” “This feels really big, right now what feels like the hardest part? What’s the part that you think will be the toughest?What part do you think you could tackle first?

Once you break through the tyranny of all or none thinking, some things feel more approachable. The door is open.

Ask Your Child to Time the Process:  Children hate homework, but adding an hour of resistance to the 15 minutes it often takes to complete the work is just extending the misery. Challenge your child to see how much more efficiently they can get their work done when there’s minimal grumbling. Be a neutral, agenda-free encourager of your child’s data collection. Have your child time their actual work time vs. start up time each day for a week. When they see how much time they’re wasting on start-up, the result will sell itself. (Don’t ruin the project by saying things like—“see, I told you it would be faster if you didn’t complain.” Best if your child discovers that for himself).

Use Grandma’s Rule As An Incentive: First comes dinner, then you get to eat dessert. Heading into homework time, ask your child what they want to do after their work is done. This will help get the momentum going. 

Create a Routine: Rather than fight the homework battle anew each day, discuss a plan with your child for when and where homework will be done every day, so after a few weeks (it takes about three weeks to establish a new routine), your child will know the drill and get with the program, and won’t argue about it (especially if they were involved in the creation of the plan). Have your child write down the schedule and hang it on the fridge, so if there are questions, you don’t have to be the bad guy, just point to the schedule.

Destigmatize Mistakes Some of the homework drama comes from kids being afraid they won’t know how to do something and they don’t want to be caught in that moment. Take the pressure off. Yes, there is often a right or wrong answer in school, but in life, kids need to learn how to try things when they are not exactly sure how they will go. Link mistakes with courage and learning rather than embarrassment and failure. Focus on the process—what they can learn from it—rather than the fact of the mistake. Have your child identify a “fallible hero” or “famous failure” such as Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team, or Thomas Edison requiring 10,000 trials before he made a successful light-bulb. Success is about perseverance; mistakes are the stepping stones.  

Don’t Talk about the Future in Negative Ways Keep the—“you need to be able to do this for college!, or, “Every grade counts!”—orientation out of your nightly homework routine. What matters is the “trend” of your child’s work ethic and performance, not every single moment. The best predictor of future success and confidence is current success and confidence. Don’t pull the rug out from under your child by holding the future over her head, instead build confidence by encouraging your child’s efforts now. 

Normalize!Show the Seams of How Learning Works Many children believe that intelligence is fixed—you either have it or you don’t. Parents and educators need to actively promote the idea that intelligence is acquired through experience and experience isn’t always neat and tidy. Introduce the idea of a learning curve, let children know that concepts are hard at first, that they have not mastered them yet (not that it is a now or never endeavor). Use examples of your own learning process with new challenges to show the trial and error process of gaining competency. It is not about Presto! It’s about effort.  

Stay tuned for more blog posts about homework success. Next topic: Strategies for Preventing Homework Procrastination.

Want to learn more about how to help your child overcome worry and negative thinking? Check out my new book, Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: The Revised and Updated Version: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries and Phobias from Toddlers to Teens and Be Prepared for Life!  Harmony Books, 2014.

©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2014. No part may be copied without permission from author.

Mar 30, 2015

Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen. Brain studies have shown that children’s level of stress can impact their learning and memory. Math can be a stressor for many children; in fact 37% of adults surveyed in a 2005 AP-AOL study reported they “hated” math in school. More than twice as many people “hated math” more than any other subject. But math negativity can have real-world consequences. A recent survey also found that 58% of adults were unable to calculate a 10% tip for a lunch bill.

Check out the Parent Toolkit's tips to help develop your child's love of math further.

Math negativity usually starts early, when children are exposed to powerful myths about math. The biggest myth being that math skills are inherited and better in boys than girls. Many believe that if their parents did not do well in math, they won’t either. Whether math negativity comes from stereotypes, low self-expectations, developmental lag in building skills, or fear of mistakes, the consequences of math negativity can build up. The good news is that all children have the potential to achieve success in math if they believe that their perseverance can make them better, and parents can make a huge difference. Here’s how:

• Be a stereotype buster and math supporter. You can improve your child’s confidence in math by talking about the role that perseverance plays in mastering the subject, and choosing your words carefully. Try not to characterize math as being very easy or very hard. Empower boys and girls by avoiding even casual comments that might result in your child building incorrect expectations. Stay away from saying things like, “I’ve always been bad in math,” which children often interpret as something they inherit. You may also want to refrain from statements like, “Math is not that important in most careers” or “I don’t know why you’re having problems. I had no trouble adding fractions with different denominators.” Your child will feel as if she is letting you down if she struggles and this may lead her to hesitate to ask for help even when it is quite appropriate to do so. She could fall further behind because she lost confidence that her efforts will make any difference. Instead, focus on her potential, and show enthusiasm when she is tasked with math homework.

Be positive and personal. Making positive comments about math and pointing out real-life examples of it in action can also help build your child’s belief in his math abilities. The brain is most receptive to learning about a topic if there are direct links between the knowledge and something your child values. The key to building children’s interest in math is to capture their imaginations.

Show your child the value of math applied to his life, especially his hobbies and interests. For example:

  • Encourage him to predict how long it will be before his favorite television show starts if it is now 3:00 and the show starts at 5:30.

  • When shopping, let your child be your guide in evaluating the best value for an item he wants. Ask, which is a better buy, in terms of cost and quantity of various beverages, like a six-pack of 8 oz. juice boxes or a 64 oz. jug?

  • If your child wants a specific birthday gift, encourage him to compare the cost of the bicycle, toy or tech device in ads that offer different percentage discounts and different base prices.

• Make math active. Surprisingly, there is a project that all children can learn from. When teaching your child about simple addition or about subtracting negative numbers, sidewalk chalk can be a huge help. Draw a number line on the sidewalk or in your driveway. For younger children, demonstrate walking and counting aloud as you step forward along the line from zero to five. Have your child do the same and ask her to write the number she counts on the line. Once those are in place, she can do an even or odd number walk or jump as she counts by twos or threes. Older children can use the line walks to add numbers, such as starting on number 4 and taking 3 more steps to discover they are on number 7. As your child builds experience, encourage her to use the word “add” and progress to writing their results in number sentences. “I was on number seven, added three more and was on number ten.” 

• Encourage class participation. Participating in class helps your child build stronger and more accurate math memory.For most children, the biggest fear is making a mistake in front of classmates. You can help reduce mistake fear and increase your child’s participation by “playing” with math at home and on the go. Once you promote every day math where errors are part of the process, you’ll find many opportunities to engage and motivate your child’s comfort with participation and, even, mistakes. For example, encouraging your child to estimate can help her build comfort with mistakes. “More than-less than”is an activity that builds number sense and a positive attitude about the value of estimating. Select two boxes or cans of food that weigh 8 ounces and 16 ounces. Have your child hold each as you tell her their weights. Then give her other items with the weight covered by tape or a post-it. Have her compare the feel of the new item to the feel of the 8- and 16-ounce samples. She can then estimate if the new item’s weight is closer to 8 or 16 ounces.  As she becomes more successful, she may want to predict a more specific weight. Encourage her to tell you why she thinks the new can weighs 10 ounces and she might say, “It is a little heavier than the 8-ounce can or it is much lighter than the 16-ounce can, but not as light as the 8-ounce can.” She will be building number sense by experiencing the relationships between numbers and real measurements and developing concepts of “more than” and “less than”.

• Teach stress busters. If children worry about making mistakes in class or on tests, taking a few deep breaths, or thinking about a favorite memory can lower stress. Remind your child of strategies she has used previously with good outcomes, such as writing down important formulas or hard to remember computations, reviewing homework errors, or using an online math game that reviews the specific skill that needs boosting. Motivating memories can switch math negativity to the positive zone, especially when your child is frustrated or experiences a setback. Ask questions or prompt her memories of challenges she has achieved, “Remember when you kept trying even though you felt like giving up when you were learning to ride a bike?” or “Do you remember when playing a song with two chords on your guitar was difficult? Now you have mastered more than twenty!” When children make the connections from other challenges to math challenges, they understand that mistakes are a natural part of new skill development in math just as they were in a mastering a new video game or athletic skill.

With your help in building positive emotional connections with math, children will go from captives of math negativity to captains of their math minds. Like the toy robots that transform into space ships and tanks, their math knowledge becomes an increasingly powerful and valued tool ready to take on new challenges.


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