The worst thing you can say to a student struggling in math

“It’s easy.  Let me help you.”

Ok.  Maybe that’s not the worst thing you can say to a student, but it’s up there. Yet, well-intentioned teachers and parents say it all the time. Why?

For starters, the problem is easy to us. We don’t understand why a student is struggling with something that seems so obvious to us. Second, we are often uncomfortable watching students struggle and sometimes, the quickest way to alleviate the discomfort is to show a student how to solve the problem.

So why should we avoid saying this to students?

It’s likely that a student could interpret it as: “If it’s easy and I can’t do it, I must not be very smart.”   This is the last thing a struggling student needs to hear.

In addition, offering help creates the misconception that math is not something students can make sense of on their own. Furthermore, the help you give may not address the real reason the student is struggling.

So what can you do instead of offering to show a student how to solve a problem? The research offers one solution– find out why the student is struggling by interviewing them.

“Tell me what you are thinking,” can be a good place to start. Maybe the student doesn’t understand the vocabulary or language in a problem. Or maybe the student is missing the prior knowledge that is needed in order to solve this new task.

Finding out why the student is struggling is a good first step. We’ll explore next steps in future posts.

Want to know more?

Take a look at chapter 3 in Van de Walle’s book: Elementary and middle school mathematics: Teaching developmentally.

Read Children’s Mathematics: Cognitively Guided Instruction

Check out this article about how one teachers tried this in his classroom:  Buschman, L. (2001). Using Student Interviews To Guide Classroom Instruction: An Action Research Project. Teaching Children Mathematics, 8(4), 222-27.