Dear Dr. Linda,
“Math-a-Minute” is one of the worst nightmares in our house. Our eight-year-old daughter Sydney is a bright little girl but works slowly. Last year, her second grade teacher loved “Math-a-Minute,” where she had the children do 100 addition or subtraction problems within a minute. There was no way Sydney could do that. She knew the answers but got so nervous she’d freeze. This year, her third grade teacher is doing the same with multiplication facts. I spoke to both teachers and the principal. They told me they want the math facts to be automatic. It is automatic for Sydney, but she can’t go that fast. It’s making her upset over nothing. She understands numbers and I think would love math, but because of “Math-a-Minute,” she hates math. Mom, PhD in economics
Dear Dr. Economist,
I agree with you. Everyone works at a different pace. Some children work very slowly, but it’s worth the wait. If they’ve learned what they were taught, that’s all that’s needed. Some children go so fast that they make one mistake after another and haven’t learned anything. And some children are able to work quickly and do well.
I understand what her teachers are doing. They want their students to know the number facts automatically, not by counting on their fingers or counting up when doing the times tables. But in reality, many children work slowly like Sydney. This type of instruction is so stressful for them that it’s counterproductive. They may eventually be able to pass the “Math-a-Minute” test but in the process, these students have learned to hate math as your daughter has.
I recently met with two high schoolers who were doing poorly in school. Both are quite intelligent, but school had been a struggle from first grade on. The first time I met Molly, a 10th grader, I asked her to pick up a pencil and answer the questions on the paper in front of her. I sat in amazement as she very slowly picked up the pencil and started to write. I asked Molly if she ever finishes a test on time. She said, “Never. I start looking at the clock in the middle of the test and realize I won’t have time to finish. Then I get really nervous and can’t think anymore.” She was failing in school because she couldn’t work fast enough.
Anthony, an 11th grader, also worked slowly. He was failing three subjects. His parents, out of frustration, told me they’d grounded him until his grades improved. They didn’t realize he’d be grounded forever because his grades weren’t going to improve. He was failing because he couldn’t keep up with the assignments. When I tested him by asking specific questions, he just sat and looked at me. The first time this happened, I repeated the question. I soon found out that he processed what I said, but it just took him longer to respond. His processing speed, as with Molly, was slow. What should have taken two hours that day, took four.
Because he and Molly couldn’t keep up, no one would have ever known what they were capable of unless their parents had intervened and found specialists to help. In both cases, the parents contacted their student’s guidance counselor. The guidance counselors made sure that both students’ needs were addressed. Molly and Anthony were given extra time on tests and to complete assignments.
I recommend you speak to Sydney’s guidance counselor, the person responsible for special needs, or even the school psychologist. In other words, keep telling people at Sydney’s school about her challenge with Math-a-Minute until you find someone who can intervene on your daughter’s behalf.
Co-author of Improve Your Study Skills, Improve Your Memory Skills and director of Strong Learning Tutoring and Test Prep, Inc. If you have any questions you’d like to share with Dr. Linda, email her at Linda@stronglearning.com.