1. Math Attitude
In order to improve with math, the right attitude is the first place to start. Many students think they are simply "bad at math" (sometimes even because a parent has stated that they were always "bad at math" in school themselves). If they think of one's skill at mathematics as a fixed, unchangeable thing, they aren't going to put much effort into improving it.
A good analogy for math skills is that of learning a sport. Some children are naturally athletic and take to the skills quickly, while others are slower and need more practice. All, however, can become skilled to a reasonable level. Remind the child that the gymnasts who win gold medals at the Olympics didn't wake up with those skills; they had to work at them every day for years. Fortunately, it's much easier to become good at mathematics than Olympic-level gymnastics!
The child may also need reassurance that just because they're struggling with a concept (or several concepts) does not mean that they're "dumb" or stupid in some way. They most likely have missed key concepts leading up to what they're working on now, like trying to build the second story of a building when the walls aren't completed for the first floor.
2. Basic Skills
Make sure the student's basic skills are solid: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts (in that order, as far as they are expected to know them). The student may be able to get the right answer while relying on finger-counting, but much of their brain's energy will be devoted to the simple arithmetic and they'll find it harder to remember the steps to things such as subtraction with borrowing/regrouping or long division. Worse, if they frequently get problems wrong because they said that 15 – 7 = 9, or they thought that 8 × 8 = 63, their frustration and negative self-concept will grow.
If they're weak with any of the facts, begin by teaching and practicing the strategies. For instance, they should be able to add 7 + 8 by thinking "7 + 7 and one more". They should know (or learn) the numbers that work together to make ten (3 + 7, 8 + 2, etc.). In multiplication they should learn the strategies such as doubling ×3 facts to find the ×6 facts (4 × 3 = 12, and 12 + 12 = 24, so 8 × 3 = 24), and be able to add or subtract any group to find the next larger or smaller fact. It's more important for them to learn the strategies than it is for them to memorize the facts at first, so that if they ever forget a fact, they can find it again by using the strategies. Memorization will come with repeated practice of the strategies.
Much of math, surprisingly, depends on reading skill. Word or story problems in particular require careful reading to understand what is being asked, and then what information is needed to solve the problem, but even simple directions can be problematic if the student has weak reading skills or tends to rush through too quickly.
Students whose reading ability lags behind may need math problems read to them until their reading skill catches up. Students who speed through the reading will need to break that habit quickly. They may
need to be reminded to check what the problem is asking, and see if they answered the question that was asked; a student who rushes may calculate the wrong information because they thought they were supposed to find a different value than what the problem asked them to.
4. Problem-Solving Skills
Reading is a part of problem solving, but being able to solve problems involves far more than simply reading and understanding the words. Students have to be able to choose the correct strategy, identify the operation, draw a picture that will help them, and more.
Students who struggle with the most basic word problems may need to be taught basic problem-solving skills. They should be taught the key words which help identify operations, such as "how many more" means to find the difference (subtract). They need to practice strategies such as drawing specific types of pictures (part/whole boxes, fractions, etc.) to help them understand what is happening. It may also help to have them practice talking to themselves (what is known as "private speech") to help them think through problems.
5. Fill in the Gaps
If the student is struggling with math, chances are good they missed learning something along the way. Because math is so linear, failure to learn a skill in second grade can mean struggles in third grade and failure in fourth.
A thorough assessment of what math the student can or can't do at that moment may reveal areas of weakness that can receive special practice, much like a basketball player might need special practice in dribbling. They may need to go back to the math learned the previous year, or even two years before, and review specific skills. As gaps are filled in, they will find the current math easier to handle.
Math skills don't improve overnight, but neither does anyone wake up suddenly able to do a complex dive from a high diving board without any practice. Encourage the student to have patience as they work on math several times a week, and in the long run they'll be much more confident about their math abilities as they start experiencing success on a regular basis.
Written by Destiny Woods
3th and 4th grade teacher in Washington State