In my career I've worked with countless students, Pre-K through adult, who are led to believe that they’ll never understand or be skilled at math because they like reading better, or vice versa. In a world of standardized testing, it’s easy to see how students can come to feel this way.
Students are constantly assessed in math and reading—it’s only natural that those who are more skilled at one than the other could, out of frustration, come to see them as opposites. The belief that “I’m just not good at this” is a difficult hurdle for any learner to overcome. In my experience, this attitude is easier to break in younger students, particularly the earliest years of K-5. If your learner is in K+, or if your family includes an early learner and a K+ student, keep these "dos and don'ts" in mind.
1. Don't set up math and reading as opposites
Avoid the cliché that students are good at math or good at reading. Math and reading are not opposites, but are in fact very closely linked. Try to avoid asking students if they like math or reading better. In fact, at CCSWFL and many other early learning institutions, the first time children are introduced to phonological awareness (knowing the sound structure of words) is through the counting of syllables in the words by clapping.
Instead, if your child says a polarizing phrase during homework like "I hate reading, I want to do math," ask probing questions to get to the bottom of the difficulty. Start with “Why don't you like it? What do you like about it? Can you think of another time when you had difficulties with math? What happened to help you understand it better?” With these "overcoming" details, find a way to guide them to understanding again.
2. Do use positive journey or exploration vocabulary
While difficult to introduce the concepts of planning ahead and laying the foundation for future knowledge, one of the best teaching tools I've used to help students complete difficult homework through understanding is to talk about taking a journey. If you can set up a step-by-step reward system, do it! Help your learner understand that challenges can be rewarding through hard work and effort.
3. Don't say "I've always hated…." "I was never good at … either."
Do not project your own math or reading insecurities on your child. This is one of those bad behaviors that have excellent intentions—you see the struggle your child has and it reminds you of your own. While it may seem like expressing empathy to you, to your child it could come across as an excuse they can use in the future.
Instead, try to figure out where the difficulty stems from. Can you tell from the homework if they are missing a main concept? Focus on the learner’s work, and do your best to ignore any hard feelings that you might have toward the subject.
4. Don’t say "**subject** is hard"
Along with not saying "I've always hated…" avoid saying a subject is "hard." Instead, say that “sometimes math/reading can be challenging, but through hard work it can become easier.”
5. Do support the teacher and his or her teaching method—even if you have to learn it yourself
It's tempting to try to teach your child what you feel is the easy way—but this can create issues down the road, especially as your child progresses from grade to grade. If you ever have a question about how your child is learning or how you can assist them with homework or extra help, ask the teacher! You'd be surprised how many parents come into their child's classroom to be taught by a fifth-grade math teacher!
6. Do stop the homework if tears are shed from understanding issues
A fourth-grade math teacher once told me, "…if the kids are crying about the homework, I'm doing it wrong." Make sure to communicate with the teacher about your child's difficulties with an assignment—some extra tutoring may be needed, and they are in the best position to know!
The best way for your child to form positive attitudes about learning and subjects is to start as early as possible. As soon as you see any difficulties with any subject, address the issue immediately.