Is Your Child Falling Behind in Math? The Repercussions Could Be Worse Than You Realize

American children who are behind in math tend to stay behind in math throughout their academic career.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.


Remedial math needed in college

It is a shocking fact that in America today, while more and more high school graduates move on to college, many of them discover that they cannot immediately start taking college level classes.  They find out they need remedial work in English, math, or both, to prepare for the credit bearing courses they will need for their degree.  Depending on the state, anywhere from 10% to 49% of all first time college students are immediately placed in remedial courses.  In 2014 the California University System recommended remediation for 40% of their incoming students. 

Remedial classes cost money

In New York City, the cost of this “remediation tax” was recently estimated to be $63 million.   And while a public school education is paid for by taxpayers, no such universal entitlement exists for college.   Prerequisite remedial classes cost money, and can even add additional living expenses.  Students in private colleges are spending an average of $12,000 to complete remedial work.  And, even besides the financial factor, the failure to come to college fully prepared has lasting effects.  

Students are failing to graduate on time 

Consider these statistics:

  • The average college graduation rate in the U.S. is slightly under 55%.

  • At Michigan State University, only 48% of students graduate within 6 years!

  • At the University of Arizona, only 34% of students graduate within 6 years!

  • When they need remediation, students are 75% less likely to finish their degree at all.

Finally, lack of a degree has a profound impact on a person’s lifetime earnings, not to mention the ability to simply repay student loan debt.

When it starts

Issues of college readiness can begin long before high school graduation.  When a child struggles in the early years, they rarely catch up.  According to the national testing group ACT, “students who have fallen far behind academically in 4th and 8th grade have less than a 1 in 3 chance of being ready for college or a career by the end of high school”.  These statistics may seem bleak but they are even more serious given the fact that the student population measured is not the general population.  The American College Testing organization was only counting the students who have actually taken their test.  So, they are only measuring college bound students who should be stronger than average academically to begin with. 

Obviously strong groundwork in grade school and middle school is needed for kids to do well in high school.  Children need to know their letters before they can read.  Kids need to be proficient in the basics such as multiplication before they can conquer algebra.  Early math fluency is in particular is crucial – it has been shown to more strongly predict later academic success than even reading skills. 

What can parents do to keep their kids from falling behind?

Regardless of where they go to school, or what teachers they have, parents are crucial to a child’s success.  And math competence in particular is essential to long term academic success.  Without a foundation in basic skills, kids can’t learn higher level abstract math.  Kids don’t only develop math skills in the classroom.  Parents can go a long way with kids in math.  For example, they can:

Involve kids in math adults come across every day: 

  • Measuring ingredients for cooking

  • Counting change

  • Estimating the time needed to complete a household chore

  • Telling time

  • Dividing a cake or pizza into fractions

  • Comparing prices in the supermarket

Read books that make math fun, such as:

Play games that are fun but also teach skills

Games can help kids understand a variety of math concepts, such as positive and negative numbers and counting in groups of tens.   Here are some games that make math fun for kids: 

Guess Who – concept of process of elimination

Chutes & Ladders – group of 10 number system

Qwirkle – strategy & pattern recognition

Escape Medusa’s Rage – concept of positive & negative numbers



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The Shocking Factor that Can Determine Your Child’s Success in Math – or Failure


“Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.” – Tommy Lee Jones, as “K”, in Men in Black


Math is the subject American kids express the least confidence with. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Who you believe you are determines what you work at

Everything we do springs from our identity, from our belief in what our potential is.  We generally have more than one identity.  For example, we may think of ourselves as athletic, honest, artistic, or hardworking; typically a combination of several of identities like these at the same time.  Have you ever witnessed someone else behaving as if they couldn’t do something they were obviously perfectly capable of?  They were 100% sure and yet you knew they were 100% wrong.  For example, many people say they can’t speak in public – yet they manage to (1) stand up and (2) speak -with no problem every day!  Some have a phobia, like flying, in which they feel they can’t simply get in a plane and sit quietly, but ultimately they can do it (without drugs). 


“What we see depends mainly on what we look for”.  – John Lubbock

Where your identity comes from

In many ways our identity is shaped by the people who raise us.  If our parents praised our intelligence, we believe we are intelligent.  If they praise our talents in a particular area, like art, we tend to see ourselves artistically talented.  Many well-meaning parents will even label one of their children “the smart one” or another as “the athlete in the family”, and these identities can become part of a person’s self-image throughout life.  Even when not stated directly, our parents can have unconscious beliefs about us.  These beliefs can profoundly influence the conclusions we come to assume about our own potential. 


“Every time you state what you want or believe, you’re the first to hear it. It’s a message to both you and others about what you think is possible. Don’t put a ceiling on yourself” – Oprah Winfrey


How parents influence their child’s identity

A fixed mindset is the view that abilities and intelligence are set at birth and can’t be changed.  People who have a fixed mindset tend to assign inborn talent as the reason for an individual’s success, rather than hard work.  The opposite of this is a growth mindset, which acknowledges that the mind is plastic, that is, constantly growing and responding to how we use it.  People who have a growth mindset believe persistence and effort are far more important to achievement than genetics.

In America, we have a fixed mindset about math ability.  We call anyone who appears to understand math easily a “math person”.  We think anyone who struggles even briefly is “not a math person”.  But math is supposed to be learned through practice, repeated attempts, and trial and error.  Frustration is par for the course.  In fact, it has been demonstrated with brain scans that making a mistake in math actually grows your brain!  In spite of this, when a student finds math a challenge they are sometimes labeled as “not a math person” and led to believe they don’t have what it takes to succeed at higher levels.  They are often deliberately steered away from classes and careers with high level math requirements.  They can be discouraged from even trying!

Most American adults have been shaped by these attitudes while growing up.  Not surprisingly, a majority of American adults describe themselves as being either not a “math person” or outright math phobic.  (It is interesting that there can actually be a fear of math.  A fear of death, snakes, heights, or spiders is easy to understand but what exactly could happen from getting a school math problem wrong?!)  These beliefs can influence the way people react when their kids are feeling frustrated with their math homework.  American children often hear these kinds of things from their parents:

“Don’t worry, you are good at other subjects.”

“I wasn’t a math person either.”

“Just memorize what you need to know to pass the test and get through your requirements.  You aren’t going to use it anyway.”


“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan


In Other Countries it’s Different

This is a far cry from the mentality seen in many Asian countries.  Math is seen as a learned skill, to be practiced and worked on continuously until it’s mastered.  Mistakes are just part of the learning process – not proof of low intelligence.  Math is something anyone can do if they apply themselves enough.  It doesn’t require a special genetic trait enjoyed only by a fortunate minority.  It is self-evident that success in math is the same as success in general – the result of persistence and hard work, not merely being lucky.


“Nothing can stop the person with the right mental attitude from achieving the goal and nothing on earth can help the person with the wrong mental attitude.”  – Thomas Jefferson 


Your attitudes influence your choices, and your choices determine your results

A person won’t persist for very long without having faith in their ability to be successful.  When we believe our hard work will pay off we are more likely to keep going.  When we don’t, we tend to get discouraged and quit.  Once we decide we are not a “math person”, we tend to operate through that filter.  Overwhelming insecurity about our math ability weighs against the persistence needed to succeed. 


“If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought”.  – Peace Pilgrim


Math is a lot like reading

When a child has difficulty in math, American parents tend to accept it, thinking it’s just not their area.  But when their child has trouble reading, they don’t conclude that they are “just not a reading person”!  They commit to helping them by providing plenty of interesting books, having them read every day consistently, and practicing their writing.  American parents carry the attitude that all children (barring certain special needs) are able to read well and it is just a matter of time and effort until they do.  Math is no different.  If we understand that our children are capable and help them persist until they succeed, we will see what they really can do.


“When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it”. – Henry Ford


How to promote a positive math identity in your child

American adults were brought up with certain attitudes about math that may have influenced part of their own identity.  But we don’t have to blindly accept any identity given to us.  We can decide to be a person who keeps working through frustration in an area outside of our comfort zone.  We can consider the possibility that we may have been unconsciously underestimating ourselves in a lot of ways.

So the obvious question that follows is, how do we get our children feeling empowered to confidently persevere with math challenges?

Here are a few easy suggestions:

  • Don’t verbalize your negative thoughts about math or your negative experiences with it.  Think of positive things to say about math challenges when you can.

  • Praise their hard work and persistence rather than their intelligence.

  • Never tell a child (or even imply) that they are not a “math person”.  There’s no such thing.

  • Encourage them to take risks and try new math challenges.

  • Let them know they can succeed if they work hard enough.

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.  Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.  Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.  Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.  Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”   – Calvin Coolidge

3 thoughts on “The Shocking Factor that Can Determine Your Child’s Success in Math – or Failure

  1. My kids’ Kindergarten teacher advised all parents to read with their kid every day but said nothing about practicing addition and subtraction each day!

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The One Thing You’re Doing That Could Hold Your Child Back in Math

Have you ever had math anxiety?  If so, you’re not alone.  Many people claim to suffer from math anxiety – and expressing it can actually affect their kids.

Parents’ beliefs are contagious

Studies have shown that parents who express anxiety while helping their children with math reduce their children’s performance in first and second grades.  When mothers informed their daughters that they were not good at math, the daughters’ work in the subject declined.

It’s not just the parents

Female teachers’ math anxiety has been shown to negatively affects girls’ math achievement.  In one study, the more anxious the female elementary school teachers were, the more likely the girls in their classes became infected with the stereotype that girls were not good at math – and the girls’ math performance was impacted in a measurable way.   The boys in their classes were unaffected.

Why is math anxiety a problem?

Math anxiety affects math performance.  Math anxiety can have a disruptive effect on working memory, which is needed to attack math problems.  When a child is preoccupied with fearful and apprehensive thoughts, their brain is not fully focused on the challenging task at hand, putting them at a distinct disadvantage that affects their learning.  This is particularly common when children are given timed tests.

Higher level math will be a lot more important to the next generation.  American students, at a minimum, generally have to take 10 years of math classes to achieve a high school diploma – the least amount of education needed to get even an unskilled job in today’s job market.  Lack of confidence in math leads students to avoid certain careers because completion of high level math is needed for entry.  This doesn’t only apply to the obvious scientific occupations, many college business programs actually require two semesters of calculus.

As time goes on, STEM careers will become a much larger part of the economy.  The working world will be transformed in radical ways in short periods of time.  For example, driverless cars could make taxi drivers and truck drivers obsolete within ten years.  Uber and similar companies are already making full time taxi driving a thing of the past.  Today’s kids will need a solid foundation in the STEM subjects to prepare them for a job market we can’t even imagine today.

So how can parents help their children learn math more easily?

If you struggled with math or have had anxiety, refrain from expressing it to your child.  Talk positively about how math (even simple computations) help you in your daily life today.  Praise all efforts and perseverance with their homework, even when they don’t arrive at the right answer at times.  If you’re a mother who has a daughter, let her know you are confident in her ability to achieve in math.

Parents can foster positive attitudes about math by stressing that math is a just a subject learned by practice and persistence.  There is no such thing as a “math person” and anyone can learn math.  Making mistakes is just a healthy part of that process – not proof of any lack of ability or intelligence.  In fact, making mistakes in math has been shown on MRI scans to make a person’s brain grow.  There is no race or gender that has any special advantage when doing math, those stereotypes are totally wrong.

Parents can help their kids learn math by encouraging them to play math enrichment games and do puzzles to develop number sense.  Visuals like board games are especially helpful for developing a child’s understanding of math concepts.  Spatial skills –  the comprehension and recall of the spatial relations between objects – are closely related to math skills.  Studies have shown that kids benefitted immediately after playing a number line game similar to Snakes and Ladders and a visual model of the positive and negative number line helped kids intuitively understand how negative numbers work.  The more kids play games and have fun with numbers, the less math anxiety and the more confidence they will have exploring math. 

Click here to see 9 Great Picture Books to Help Your Kid Learn Math

Click here to see 6 Simple Ways to Improve Your Child’s Math & Spatial Skills


4 thoughts on “The One Thing You’re Doing That Could Hold Your Child Back in Math

  1. Kids learn by example and model their parents’ behavior

    I didn’t know that it got that specific but I guess you have to watch what you say to a daughter

  2. What happens when a father is very confident in math but the mother has already told the daughter she hates math and is no good at it. Does a Dad’s encouragement cancel out a mother’s math phobia?

    1. Interesting point, Terry! I didn’t see any studies done on this but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. I will have to look into this, it could make a good article in itself. I would expect that fathers who talk to their daughters and give them encouragement boost their daughters’ confidence and that the effects would be significant.

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Why I Created a Math Game – One Mom’s Story

Did you know that a startling 60% of college eligible students require remedial help – which they have to pay college tuition for? Studies show that kids who are falling behind in the early grades tend to stay behind through high school. And, because math builds on prior knowledge, many start 9th grade not prepared for high school level math classes.

I am a former reluctant and complaining math student. Throughout my school years I was enthusiastic about learning in most of my classes. But math never seemed to make sense to me. Sure, it was important to count and understand how to measure things and deal with money – but after a certain point, math didn’t appear to have any connection to reality. I certainly didn’t observe any adult that I knew who was actually using anything beyond the basics.

In high school, we learned about things like the relationship between the sides of a triangle, prime numbers, and even something called “imaginary numbers”! Seriously, these were numbers that the teacher admitted did not exist. (Funny, the English teachers never made us learn the meanings of words that didn’t exist.) Of course, we asked why we had to spend so much time and effort mastering these ideas and formulas – but the stock answers were, “because it will be on the test” or “because if you take higher level math or science in college, you’ll need this as a foundation”! I don’t know how we were supposed to be motivated and many of us were not. And now I know that girls especially want to know why and how a formula works, not just when to use it mechanically to get an answer the teacher assures them is correct.

Years later, when I had a daughter, I didn’t want her to have the same experience I did. I wanted to inspire her in math. With the explosion of STEM careers anticipated in the future job market, it was obvious that in the 21st century, math would be more important than ever. So I began to look for math learning toys wherever I could discover them. But one of the things I couldn’t find was a game to teach my kid how negative numbers work.

I wanted an educational toy that teaches negative numbers because I remember vividly how bizarre they seemed when I first encountered them in school. It was a mental stretch to subtract a larger number from a smaller one, or use negative numbers in multiplication! How much easier would it have been if I had a fun visual way to make it more relatable and concrete. By simplifying negative numbers into graphic form on a game board, I hope to make them fun and easy for kids. I’d like to help lay the foundation for the more complex ideas surrounding them later in their studies, and boost their self confidence in math. And, I wanted a solution for parents who want to help their kid pass math and parents who want the best possible math enrichment for their kids.

Creating and producing a learning game is never easy, but after a lot of research and design work, my game is now ready to play.  The game is simple, kids just open the box and follow the directions on the cards. (To see card samples, and learn how, see FAQS. )  And, recently, I Googled “uses for imaginary numbers” just out of curiosity. It turns out they do have real world applications – in electronics.

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