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Fifth-Grader Struggling with Math
Q: My fifth-grader had good math grades until this year. Now, she's struggling a lot and has gone from a B to a D in math. She seems to understand the math (long division) only if her father tutors her a great deal. However, when it comes to test day she does the problems backwards, forgets decimal points, and so on. It's very frustrating to her and her father when she can explain it to him, yet can't seem to remember the steps when taking the test. How do we know if she has a problem we need to investigate, or if she's just no good at math? She will be entering the sixth grade next year and we're concerned that she will continue to struggle. Please help us.
A: Before fifth grade, much of math is frequently taught as a rote skill. If a child can master math facts, the red flag isn't raised and she might do just fine. As you go on in school, however, math procedures play a critical role. There's so much to remember! When you do long division, for example, you have to not only have easy access to your math facts, but you also have to remember the steps to follow in order to reach your solution. And don't forget the importance of keeping your numbers in line. And of course you have to be able to judge if your answer makes sense to catch any major errors. Many children have trouble keeping all of this information in their "active working memory" as they follow the sequence of steps to reach a solution. Sometimes this is because of a general weakness in math or even a specific math disability. Other times, of course, it can be because there's a poor match between the way your child learns and the way she's being taught.
Have you spoken to your child's teacher about your concerns? Did your daughter ever take any standardized math tests (a test that the whole grade would take at the same time)? Is there a guidance counselor or person in charge of testing you could talk to at the school? Is there any specialized math help available for children in school who need it?
Testing would certainly give you more information about what's going on and you have the right, as a parent, to have your daughter evaluated at your local school or school district. But testing takes time and it will be a while before you get the results. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to consider having her tutored by a professional who is skilled in this area. It sounds like there might be some tension building up between your daughter and your husband when he helps her with her schoolwork. It's often a relief to all concerned to have someone from outside the family do the tutoring.
Your school guidance counselor may be able to give you a referral or you might consider looking at the websites for either the Learning Disabilities Association or the International Dyslexia Association to see if there's a branch of either organization in your area. Both organizations should be able to help you find a capable professional who can help with math. Your local college or university may also be able to recommend someone who has been trained to do this work.
You're very wise to take action now before this difficulty she's having affects her self-esteem further.
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For more than 20 years, Eileen Marzola has worked with children and adults with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders, and with their parents and teachers. She has been a regular education classroom teacher, a consultant teacher/resource teacher, an educational evaluator/diagnostician, and has also taught graduate students at the university level. Marzola is an adjunct assistant professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Hunter College of the City University of New York. She also maintains a private practice in the evaluation and teaching of children with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.