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What to do when you're trying to support your learner, but feel like giving up.

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

A couple months ago when I tried to start my car and it wouldn’t start, having never changed a car battery in my life, I figured that I would just do it. I did a little research to figure out the tools I’d need and the process, then went to the store and bought a battery, a socket wrench, some gloves, and a couple other things. I drove home ready. And after an hour or so of trying, which included getting my husband (who’d also never changed a car battery) to try to help...I had come to an impasse. Just as I was about to try to jump start the car and drive it to a mechanic to have them change the battery, my husband said that he’d called a friend, and that friend of ours would help us change the battery. With a coach’s insights, a socket wrench extender (strategy) and a few tips (options), I had a working car with a brand new battery. And I had the know-how necessary to change batteries in the future!

At-home learning can sometimes feel like this. As a parent/caregiver you may be looking around at your situation and you have all the right tools, you kinda know what the challenge is you’re looking to solve- but things are not working. And every moment that passes you feel more stuck, frustrated, and ready to find someone to do it for you. But more often than not, you’re closer than you realize to overcoming the challenge in front of you. All it takes is a coach, a strategy, and some options, so support can be customized for you and your learner, and not only will you be able to overcome your challenges, but YOU will have done it. And your confidence, abilities, and connection with your learner will all grow in the process.

With a coach, a strategy, and some options, so support can be customized for you and your learner, not only will you be able to overcome your challenges, but YOU will have done it.

A couple of days ago a mother was sharing her frustration that her eight year old son insists on doing work in his head- and more often than not, gets the math problems wrong. He is working on basic computation- problems like, 8+9 and 45+27. She wants him to write things down but getting him to do so is a battle. She reached out for help and in doing so she got coaching, a strategy, and some options that can not only make her time with her learner less stressful and easier, but will make her son a better mathematician.

Coaching: Having worked with countless students who didn’t care to take time to write things down, two things are important to investigate, first, why do they want to do things in their head? And second, is there a pattern to the wrong answers they are writing? There are countless answers to these two questions, but here are the most common situations I’ve experienced. Lots of times learners prefer to do things in their heads based on a misconception that “good” mathematicians and “smart” kids just know the answers and can do it in their heads. If this is the case, you can tackle addressing this misconception any number of ways that you feel will best reach your individual learner. My go-to is, “Mathematicians are concerned about efficiency and accuracy. These are two very important aspects of our work! And right now, we’re not doing either to the best of our ability. Write down or say what you’re doing in your head so I can figure out where you’re going wrong. That’ll help us fix your accuracy issue. And let me teach you a strategy for doing mental math that’ll help you be efficient.” It’s best to think of a go-to answer because misconceptions like this one come up often, and being a broken record will save you from trying to come up with something new. Also the repetition will reinforce the importance of whatever is a part of your refrain. In my case, efficiency and accuracy.

With regards to the pattern of wrong answers. For a problem like 9+7, the main wrong answer I’ve seen is 15. Lots of time, in this case, the learner is counting the number 9 as they attempt to add (9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15). Instead of counting the numbers they added to 9...they counted 7 numbers starting with 9. In this case a 100s chart or number line can help the learner to visualize the space between numbers and adding on.

Strategy: Just like I needed a socket wrench extender, mental math isn’t all bad- this particular student just needed a strategy to help him be accurate. The Making 10s Strategy works well with him trying to do things in his head. Basically, when adding numbers you try to make tens. And then add the remaining ones. So instead of 9+7, I make a 10 (by taking one from the 7) and the problem I do in my head is 10+6= 16. (And for all of the grown-ups out there who taught a child the “9s trick for addition,” where whatever number you are adding to 9, take one less than that number and put a one in front of it. You have been making 10s all along. So don’t say 9s trick anymore- just call it what it is, making 10s! It's way less confusing.)

Options: At first the problems that the learner was doing were basic fill-in-the-blank problems where he was only responsible for the answer. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

Option 1: If you see a pattern in the wrong answers (like the misconception described above), make some of the problems multiple choice and don’t include the answer your learner is most likely to get. That can force your learner to slow down and reconcile what's happening in his/her head with what's on the paper as answers.

Option 2: Vary the format of some of the multiple choice answers and have your learner select ALL the correct answers. For example:

Circle all the correct answers for 9+7= ____________

A. A number that is higher than 15

B. A number that is lower than 20

C. 16

D. 27

Option 3: Teach and enforce estimation. I’m going to make a big statement. But I think it’s safe to say that all calculations should begin with estimation. And not necessarily estimation the way we learned it, “ if it's higher than 5 round up…”, but a moment to think about what 9+7 means. Before any calculation is done, a couple of questions, “What is the answer going to be close to?” “How do I know that?”

Looking back I can see and appreciate how close I was to being able to solve my car-battery problem. I had the socket wrench, and was only a socket-wrench extender from success! I can also appreciate what I would have missed out on if I’d taken it to the mechanic because I was so frustrated by the whole ordeal. Now not only do I know how to change a battery, but I have a better sense of the tools I’d need to have (or to borrow) to get the job done. And I’m more confident in my ability to work with cars. Who knows, tackle the AC that’s been acting funny in my car?

I think what felt so overwhelming and unsettling was that I knew I had the right tools to get the job done but something was still missing and I didn’t know what it was. And being close to being able to solve the problem didn’t feel great! What I needed (but didn’t know at first) was someone to talk me through the process and literally and figuratively enhance my efforts, and I was more than able to take it from there.

If you’d like help supporting your learner with math or in general feel like you’re maybe a socket-wrench extender away from success in some area of at-home learning, our Co-Teachers would love to help.

We look forward to connecting you to an awesome teacher for at-home learning, coaching and support.

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