Math without Tears, Problem 1: The attention span of a fruit fly

Do you have a problem getting your pre-teen to do math? Over the next few weeks, we’ll be giving you some strategies for the most common challenges. Broadly, these can be broken down into two, getting your child to DO math and getting your child to LEARN math.  Let’s look at the first one.

Getting your child to do math

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You tell your child to sit down at the table, desk, wherever and work on a math problem while you are making dinner. Five minutes later, you look up and your child is nowhere in sight. Go searching for said child and find her in her room looking for a pencil. Hand her a pencil which has been hidden in the pencil holder that is on her dresser and march her back downstairs.

Go back to cooking.

Five minutes later, your child is once again missing in action. You find her in your office looking for paper but then she got distracted from her task by one of the games on your computer and is playing that.

words activities from Making Camp Premium
Speaking of games, check out Making Camp Premium, it teaches math, social studies and English.

You hand the child paper, head back to the table.

Ten minutes go by and you come back to – an empty table. You search the house and find your child in her room again. Her pencil point broke, she went upstairs to sharpen it but then saw a video game she had been playing last night, picked it up for a minute and is now on her Xbox.

After 20 minutes, two math problems have been completed, out of 24. You may be tempted to throw the Xbox out the window, followed by your child.

At this rate, it will take another 220 minutes or 3 hours and 40 minutes just to finish the math problems.

I’m going to give you some advice I had trouble doing when my children were being homeschooled, because I was running a company and had a toddler at the same time. Try this anyway.

Stop. Just stop cooking and sit down with your child.

I know, I know you have things to do and for the love of God you’d think that by 11 or 12 a kid should be able to do math problems for twenty minutes while you made some macaroni and cheese. You’re not making a three-course gourmet meal —— just stop.

Let go of the “should”

My second piece of advice is to let go of the “should”.

I want to quote Heidi, a college student from the Turtle Mountain Reservation.

In elementary school, Heidi felt as if her teachers didn’t have the skills or knowledge to understand her, she,

“ … had an extremely hard time keeping quiet and keeping still.  Having teachers that didn’t understand that I was unable to do things like that made me not like going to school… .  Every time I tried to sharpen my pencil because I needed a break from being quiet and still, they would holler and complain about it.  “

This can be hard to understand if you have other children who had no such problem, like my oldest daughter. She often complained that her younger sister “got away” with so much more than she did. I think she sometimes still feels that way. 

Solving your problem with boxes

How can boxes solve your problem?

Maybe we can talk about siblings some other day. Let’s go back to your math problem and how I solved a lot of my problems with shoeboxes. This first solution works for every subject.

Step 1: Get a box for each subject. It can be a plastic container, but a shoe box or a large enough shipping box from Amazon works just as well.

Step 2: Put EVERYTHING your child needs for that subject in the box. A couple of pencils. A pencil sharpener. Paper. A calculator. Workbook.

Step 3: Sit your child down at a location, with the box, within sight.

Step 4: Set a timer. Don’t make it 20 minutes. Make it 2 or 5. Personally, I would start with 2 or 3 minutes. Tell your child you are curious to see how long it takes to do one math problem, that it isn’t a race, you have been wondering about this.

I’m going to assume that your child can do one math problem. If that is not the case then you likely have your child doing math that is above his or her level.  Let’s look at that issue in later post.

Tell your child how long it took. Ask if he or she wants to take a break or do another problem.

Offer your child a break for as long as the problem took. If it was 30 seconds, give a 30-second break. If it was 5 minutes, give a 5-minute break. Do NOT let the break be something your child wants to do that it will be difficult to quit doing when it is time to go back to the math. It doesn’t have to be something that’s onerous, just not something that will start a fight every time you need him or her to sit back down.

Suggestions for activities (other suggestions welcome)

30 seconds or 1 minute

  • Stretch
  • Match socks
  • Pushups or situps
  • The breathe app (on apple watch) or similar calming/ breathing app

1-2 minutes

Take clean clothes to room

  • Put away some dishes
  • Jumping jacks
  • Stretch
  • Match socks

3-5 minutes

Guinea pig
All guinea pigs need baths occasionally
  • Stretch
  • Bathe the guinea pig
  • Walk or ride a bike around the block.
  • Wash dishes
  • Write a thank you card
  • Walk to the mailbox and mail a letter
  • Shoot baskets
  • Play a CASUAL educational game-  why a casual game is a post in itself, and what IS a casual game is another. In short, a game  with simple rules that is playable in short bursts. Think Candy Crush but for education. Making Camp is an example of a casual educational game. 

Repeat this process until all math problems are done.

Repeat this process until all math problems are done.

At the end of the math assignment, your child can do whatever he or she likes best for however long was spent on the math. If it took an hour, then that’s an hour of watching stupid youtube videos on the iPad (see how well this worked out for our CEO). Of course, for your child it may be playing Mario Cart.

The day will never come when I cannot outwit a 12-year-old (or, at least, today is not that day)

Your child, being the pre-teen that he or she is, may try to wait you out. When you first start getting into this routine, he or she could try taking as long as possible to do a single math problem. Your child may want to take a break after every problem. That’s fine.

Parent tip #1: When you start doing this, make sure you have a block of time, not right before your dentist appointment or when you host your weekly book club.

Parent tip #2: If you are like me and have a difficult time sitting there not being productive, find something to do while you are sitting there with your child. Good suggestions for this are paying the bills, balancing your checkbook, folding the laundry, answering email. Also if you are like me and don’t have the world’s greatest supply of patience, this will help you not lose your temper because you aren’t just sitting there waiting for your child to get done, you are accomplishing something you need to do as well. At the same time, you are being a good role model of focusing on stuff that maybe you’d rather not do but needs to be done.

I have a lot more to say but this post is already pretty long. Check back tomorrow for tips on getting your children to LEARN math, as opposed to practicing what they have learned.

Also, if you are interested in “Teaching your pre-teen math without tears, yours or theirs why, just coincidentally, I am doing a Facebook Live on that very topic on Tuesday, October 9 at 6 pm Pacific Time. 

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