Updated: Feb 8
“Math strategies for struggling learners.” Have you googled that phrase? It can feel hopeless when we as teachers have a deep desire for all of our students to love math and engage in our classroom, but they don’t. How do I engage the student who sits in the back of the room with the hoodie on and earbuds in? How do I make the math accessible to my students with IEPs? As a high school math intervention, Algebra 1, and integrated math 1 co-teacher in South Central Los Angeles and East San Jose, every year I taught students whom administration defined as “below grade level” and “at risk” and I’ve had my fair share of struggling students in math. In this post I’m eager to share how students struggle in math, why students struggle in math, and provide 10 powerful and easy math intervention strategies for teachers grades 6-12.
How students struggle in math
This could be a much longer list, but here are three ways I commonly see how “struggle” manifests in the math classroom:
1. Lack of motivation, effort, and perseverance
This struggle likely stems from a fear of math, math anxiety, or repeated failure of mathematics in school. Perhaps they’ve been taught by society that there is such thing as a “math person” and that they just aren’t one. In the classroom this might look like a slew of “IDK” for every answer on a test, maybe it’s a totally blank test, maybe it’s withdrawing from a class activity, maybe it’s sitting in the back of the room on snapchat instead of participating in anything.
2. Learning disabilities in math
Sometimes students struggle with math because they do have a learning disability in math like dyscalculia or dysgraphia. These learning disabilities manifest in lots of different ways, but what I’ve seen most in math classrooms are difficulty with short term memory, disorganized written problem solving, difficulty with basic numeracy skills, and graphs that I can’t understand.
3. Struggles with basic skills
If you teach math intervention or special education math it’s no surprise to you that your students come to you below grade level and struggle to do basic math operations like multiplication, addition with negative numbers, and fractions to name a few. This is challenging for middle school math teachers and high school math teachers because we need these basic math skills to accomplish our grade level content like solving multistep equations, factoring quadratics, or finding the measure of a missing angle to name a few.
Students who struggle with math may avoid participating in class or completing math homework. They may also try to hide their difficulties by not asking for help. We all have those students who sit in the back of the room with hoodies up and earbuds in never putting in any sort of effort to our class. Alternatively another form of avoidance can be disruption. Often students will be more disruptive in math than in other classes and this is a way to avoid doing math because they struggle with it.
Why students struggle in math
While there are probably 314 ways I can answer this question (do you like that pi reference?), I’m going to focus again on three main reasons I’ve noticed why students struggle with math:
1. Math anxiety
Dr. Jo Boaler from Stanford University has written numerous books about math education (I highly suggest starting with Mathematical Mindsets if you haven’t read it yet). In 2019 she published a paper titled, “Valuing Difference and Growth: A Youcubed Perspective on Special Education” and I share it often in my math teacher workshops. Here’s a quote to summarize a key takeaway,
“Researchers now know that when people with math anxiety encounter numbers, a fear center in the brain is activated—the same fear center that lights up when people see snakes or spiders. As the fear center of the brain becomes activated, activity in the problem-solving centers in the brain is diminished. It is no wonder that so many people underachieve in mathematics—as soon as people become anxious about it, their brains are compromised.”
If you’ve ever felt like students just shut down in your class, IT’S NOT YOU, they likely have math anxiety and they are reacting the way anyone in fear would, by withdrawing and avoiding. Think of how you feel when you’re out on a walk and see a snake slither across the path ahead. Are you feeling empowered? Motivated? Do you have the mental capacity to learn something new? I’m guessing it’s a “no” to all of those questions. That’s how your students might feel sitting in your math class.
2. Repeated failure of mathematics
While this closely tied to reason #1 above, I wanted to be explicit about this reason. Students struggle in our math class because they’ve failed math multiple times and have no reason to think this year will be any different and therefore no desire to put in any sort of effort because each year it goes to waste. If we want students to pass our math class in higher numbers, we need to change our approach and strategies so it’s different for our students who struggle. Think of something you’ve tried to learn, but just kept failing at. Did that repeated failure encourage you to keep trying? Make you feel good about yourself? Make you feel hopeful? Many of our students are in that same boat with mathematics.
3. Teacher preparation and support in teaching students who struggle
In my work as a district instructional coach as well as my current work as an independent math intervention specialist, I’ve noticed a few things about who teaches the students who struggle most and what kind of support they get:
Intervention math classes are often assigned to the newest, youngest, and most inexperienced math teachers
Special education math teachers and/or co-teachers often do not “want” to teach math and do not have a math pedagogy background
For both math intervention teachers and special education math teachers there is often no curriculum provided or instructional support
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then when students continue to fail math classes at such alarming rates. The teachers are being TOLD to teach this difficult group of students with little to no support.
How to help students who struggle in math
I’ve taken my experience and passion working with struggling students in math and created this FREE guide, “10 powerful and easy math intervention strategies” that I would love to share with you.
This guide will take the guesswork out of what small tweaks, math strategies, or math accommodations you can add to your teaching toolbox so you can help each and every student actually get the math.
After you download the free guide you will gain access to a list of 10 math intervention strategies and math accommodations for students with learning disabilities in math. Each strategy then has immediately applicable tips for how to implement that math strategy in your classroom. These math intervention strategies can be used as math ELL strategies, strategies for struggling math students, and math strategies for students with learning disabilities. If you’re a grade 6 -12 math intervention teacher or special education math teacher, this guide was made especially for you!
Tell me what you think of the strategies over on instagram.