When I first met Cheryl, she was entering fourth grade but stuck doing kindergarten math work. Her teachers wouldn’t give her higher-level work until she could pass her original worksheets. She felt incapable of ever reaching this goal. She was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia; personnel at the school she attended had the common, vague understanding of dyslexia as a reading disability, but they weren’t familiar with the term “dyscalculia” at all. Cheryl’s family decided to move her to a small private school that might be better suited to meet her learning needs. The school recommended me as a math specialist who might be able to help.
Cheryl’s mom, Sandra, phoned me to talk about summer tutoring. She didn’t know if there was much hope for Cheryl. This young girl already had four years of struggling with math concepts behind her. It seemed she was destined to never understand numbers. The family goals for Cheryl were to see if she could do any math at all, and see if there was a way to make her school experience a little more positive. Sandra and her husband weren’t concerned with Cheryl getting to grade level math; mom had “never been much of a math person” herself and they didn’t want to set unreasonable goals or make Cheryl feel more pressured than she already did. She told me that Cheryl was very shy and not very happy about doing math at all, especially not over the summer. We set a schedule of one hour sessions, once a week, to see what Cheryl might be capable of.
Cheryl was polite, but withdrawn. She stayed in her room until her mom made her come out. She did not make eye contact with me and didn’t have a lot to say. I knew that jumping in with standard math tools-- pencils, paper, worksheets-- could shut her down even further, so I began our work by asking her questions. How did she feel about math? How did she feel about herself as a mathematician? Which math topics did she feel good about, or at least, which ones did she feel the least badly about? For every emotion-based answer she gave, I affirmed her feelings (“I can understand that”, “I would probably feel that way too”) without attempting to change them or challenge them. When she talked about her past math experiences in school or at home, I allied with her (“That must have been incredibly frustrating” or “No wonder you didn’t want to try after that”), rather than asking her to see things from the adult’s point of view. When she talked about math topics that scared her, I was reassuring (“Oh yeah, fractions are the worst. We’ll fix that, but not for a while. We have plenty of time before we worry about doing that!”). I’ve found that this approach works well with struggling students: Meet them where they are, without judgment. Validate their feelings first, without asking them to validate anyone else’s feelings. Acknowledge their challenges and struggles without making them feel bad for having them. I listen to a lot of teachers and parents who are pretty good at the first half (meet students where they are, validate feelings, acknowledge struggles) but terrible at the second half (without judgment, without other people’s feelings, without making the student feel dumb).
I asked Cheryl to pick one math-related thing that she wanted to talk about. She chose shapes. She felt like she knew what shapes were, but she always got low scores on her work, and she wanted to know why. “Ok,” I said, “think of everything you know about shapes, and tell me what you know.” She could describe shapes by their names (“Well, there are triangles and squares and circles”) but was confused by their design elements (i.e., number of sides). “Ok,” I said, “I want you to look around the house and find me examples of all the different shapes you can think of.” She came back with a box of cereal and a bowl. We talked about the names for these shapes and how hard it is to find a triangle-shaped item lying around, unless there’s a bag of Doritos handy. We decided to make a poster of shapes, and she wanted to put the names of each shape inside the shape on the poster, because when she looked at a page filled with objects and words, she wasn’t always sure which ones went together. This is where I learned as much as Cheryl did that day: I realized that she had a disconnect between tying text, drawings, and details together into one concept. Once we identified this disconnect, we made a poster with large shapes so that Cheryl could write the shape name and its characteristics inside the shape itself. We also used colors to tie all important information together. Viola! Cheryl never had a question about shapes again. Of course, she had many other math-related questions, and we were able to get to them after this first success.