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Can Two Negatives Really Create Something Positive?

Mar 29, 2022

Is watching your child struggle in math really such a bad thing?

A positive times a positive is positive, a positive times a negative is negative, a negative times a negative is positive.  What?? Ughh? Sigh? Head drops to table.

To connect this to a personal real-life situation, take a journey with me.

I stand thirty feet away. My four foot eight inch son stands in front of a sixteen foot wall. There are seven rocks strategically placed from bottom to top. He starts climbing. No ropes. My heart starts pounding. He falls. I start sweating. He traverses again. He falls. He cannot see the hold right around the corner of the wall. I can see it clearly from my vantage point; however, I am not the one pressed up against a climbing wall ten feet off the ground. I just need to get closer. I need to tell him where the rock is. I need to show him how to do it. I need to help.  But I can’t.  No one is allowed to speak to the climbers. After four minutes and multiple falls (too high up for a mom to watch!), the buzzer sounds. His chance is over.

Around the same time, my daughter calls. As soon as I say hello, the sobs begin. Her eight-page final draft is due by midnight, and she is on page three. Her submitted first draft received a ‘D’.

“Tell me the topic,” I say.

I think: I can help her through this. I can do the research. I can correct her wording. However, I cannot. She is six hours away, and I know nothing about the twenty different French arrondissements. She hangs up in tears. I sink to the floor in tears. If only I could be there to guide her through this.

Two negative situations. Two very real struggles.

Is it okay to struggle? Most of us know the answer is yes. John 16:33 very clearly states, “In this world you will have trouble.” However, when it comes to math, where, most often, the answers are very cut and dry, multiplication facts are indeed concrete facts, it is clear that 1+1 = 2, and the answer is either right or wrong, is it okay to sit back and watch your child struggle?

As parents, none of us want to see our child frustrated, in tears, or failing. However, struggles are the places we grow, we begin to understand, we conquer. Perhaps we need to change our wording and our reactions when our children make mistakes in math. Perhaps we also need to change the burdensome misconception that if my child fails, it reflects on my performance as a homeschool parent. Perhaps we need to celebrate the mistakes. What?! Celebrate mistakes? Celebrate a failing grade? Give myself some grace?!

Math is a subject that too many people feel they either get it or they don’t.  Numerous times over my teaching career I have heard the statements, “I just don’t have a math brain.” Or “Math is just not my thing.” Or the dreadful, “When will I ever need to use this stuff?”  These are all very real and valid feelings when something does not make sense… and very legitimate thoughts when you receive a test back with a bad grade. These thoughts make perfect sense when you struggle with a problem over and over, and the answer is still not correct.  However, what happens when you work through the struggles, when you ask for guidance, when you go back through the steps, and find that one wrong negative sign or the small addition mistake? Most often, it is an internal feeling of relief.  What I see on the external side is a face beaming with accomplishment. The next thing I witness is this same student aces the next test.

The struggle is real and the work is time consuming, yet the process of working through the steps to the correct answer (even if it is over and over again) is the key to true knowledge. Our brain is a constant source of firing synapses and connections being made. When a mistake is made, recognized, and corrected, the connections create understanding. In a recent online article titled, Are We Teaching the Math Kids Need?, mathematician and author Jo Boaler of Limitless Minds: Learn, Lead and Live Without Barriers, states, “The best times for learning are when you’re struggling and finding things difficult; that’s when your brain is on fire with activity. I think it’s really important to share the value of struggle with students. When I teach, I say to students, ‘I want you to struggle, because that’s really good for you.’ I think it’s freeing for students when they know that’s a goal.”

Some of my favorite moments in the classroom happen when I am working through a problem with students, writing as I go, and a student suddenly says, “That is not the right answer” or “I think you multiplied wrong.” Most often he or she is exactly correct – I made a mistake. In an instant, I can tell this student gets it! He understands! She is paying attention and questions my process. The students are learning! My mistake showcases their knowledge. With a positive affirmation for catching my mistake, students learn that struggles are okay. We learn through our mistakes.

There are some positive ways we can foster growth through struggle. It starts with changing our vernacular and developing a repertoire of positive encouragement. Here are some examples:

1. Most importantly, if a math homework session turns into tears, frustration, or anger, put the math away! Go outside, take a walk, read a book, relax the brain.

Try: “It looks like you don’t quite understand how to solve these problems. Show me your steps. Can you figure out your mistakes?

3. Instead of saying, “Here’s the problem. You multiplied incorrectly.”

Try: “Hmm, does seven times six equal 48?” Let your child recognize the mistake.

4. If you do not know how to do the math, instead of saying, “We are just not a math family.”

Try:  “Can you show me the steps you are using? Can you explain why you did this?”

5. If there is a younger sibling struggling with a math concept say, “Why don’t you ask your sister to explain this? She is good with math problems.”  And let your older child hear this!

This reinforces that your family can do math!

6. After several attempts and walking through steps, if the problem still does not make sense, encourage your child (not you!) to email the teacher and ask for help.  Learning to ask for assistance is an invaluable lesson.

7. If at any point the tears, anger and yelling show back up, see #1 and repeat steps 2 – 6 at a later time.

Do your best to resist the urge to do the problem for your child and to simply tell him the answer. Your child is not a failure. His or her grades do not reflect your ability as a homeschool parent! When something clicks for a child, the result is confidence. However, a child cannot hear the click if someone else is controlling the switch.

Helen Keller accurately said, “The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.”  Most people do not correlate math to beautiful mountains. However, the light of accomplishment that I see on a student’s face who has struggled, worked hard, and now understands a problem is a picture-worthy landscape.

Is it okay to struggle in math? Yes. In life? Absolutely! So if you multiply two negatives, do you really get a positive? In the math world, yes! In life, if you put in the work, always!

My daughter received a ‘C’ on her final draft. Not bad, but devastating to a straight A student who puts way too much pressure on herself (I wonder where she gets that from!). She asked for help. Not from me, who knows very little about France, but from her professor who was more than happy to help. For several weeks, she spent an hour twice a week in his office. She did the extra work. She spent many hours in the library.

My son left that climbing session defeated. He spent the next several weeks working hard in practice. Non-athletic me, with very little upper body strength (and who would rather read a book than climb a wall), could do nothing to help. He asked his coach for help. He learned new strategies.

My daughter called at the end of the semester and her voice jubilantly cried out, “I got an ‘A’!

At the next competition, my son grabbed the top hold with both hands. He quickly glanced in my direction, and his smile was bright. Both faced negative situations. They struggled. They had to work hard to figure it out on their own. They asked for help. The two negatives turned into a positive for my mother’s heart.

Susan Spraker believes that each person has unlimited capacity to learn in their own unique way. It is her passion to lead students toward their own learning style in order for each to grow, to find their calling, and to excel. Susan holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Elementary Education with certification in K-8th grade. She has experience in various private and public elementary school environments. For the past eight years, her main role has been homeschool teacher for her children.

The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the author and should not be taken to represent the views of Excelsior Classes, LLC or the consortium of teachers.