Helping a Struggling Maths Student: Dumping the Curriculum (at least for a while)


L10 has always hated anything to do with maths, right from learning how to count.  I have tried every curriculum.  Now I don’t think changing curriculum frequently is a very good idea and generally I live by that.  Although of course for the past four years we’ve pretty much been unschoolers as far as curriculum goes.  Maths is really the only curriculum I follow.  Thing is, no matter the curriculum, L10 does not understand numbers.  I’ve known this for a while.  Unfortunately, my own anxiety over L10 getting further and further behind has prevented me from sitting down and facing the truth of the situation and working with L10 to find answers.  Instead I have swapped curriculums with desperation to find one that might suit her.  Mathusee was the best fit, only I knew she still wasn’t truly understanding any of it.  At all.  She could follow procedure and get the right answer but she looked blank if I asked her how or why.  This is not the education I wanted for my children.

Diving into an individualised maths approach

It all came to a head at the beginning of the summer, when she referred to maths as being boring, boring, boring.  This may not seem too bad to most, but my guys use that word so infrequently and are, by nature, incredibly enthusiastic, it kind of broke my heart.  I really felt like I had failed her.  And you know what?  I have failed her.  If I had followed my gut when I realised she needed me to take a different approach, she may never have got to the stage of hating maths with such ferocity.  I hadn’t been brave enough then, and we have seemingly lost more time and L10 is falling even more behind.  With some encouragement (thanks Phyllis!), I decided to spend the summer exploring a curriculum free, hands on approach to see if it would be a good fit for my girls.

I made the tough (for me) decision to go right back to the start, to try to figure out where the hole was in their understanding.  It seems to me that both girls have lots of puzzle pieces (lots of knowledge so to speak), but the pieces are all jumbled up without order (no understanding or clarity) and there maybe one or two pieces missing.  It is my job to help the girls fit the pieces together and find those which are missing.

Deschooling my maths phobic child

It seems funny to talk about deschooling them, but ultimately that is what L10, in particular, needs- a complete break from curriculum of any sort.  So for the past four weeks we have been playing lots of maths games.  I have been pleasantly surprised and feel more hopeful than I have for a long time.  Now the pressure is off she seems to be finding calculations a little easier.

Introducing Number Bonds

I introduced number bonds a couple of weeks ago, when I thought she was ready for a little more formal teaching.  No text book mind you, just the girls and their mummy.  Both girls had, of course, learnt about number bonds when they were younger.  I checked their knowledge using cards 1-9, we did number bonds of 10, of 15, of 8 etc.  They both knew them well, but I wondered if they understood them.  C10 did but L10 really didn’t.  She could reel them off very accurately but when asked what they were she did not understand that they were parts of a whole, that numbers could be split.  To her a 10 was a 10 and therefore was always a 10.  She did not see that a 10 could be split to a 3 and a 7.  Don’t get me wrong, she knew that 3 + 7 was 10 but didn’t understand the break down-build up mechanics of numbers.

I enjoy maths and understand it fairly well.  I see maths pictorially.  Numbers are never numbers but amounts which rearrange themselves in my head with relative ease, so that mental calculation appears simple to me.  T11 thinks the same way.  Maths is effortless to him.  L10 sees 10.  It is 10, nothing more.  It has no meaning to her….until you put it into the context of cooking and she can compute hard sums easily in her head.  Suddenly 10 grams isn’t 10 the number but 10 an imaginable amount.  Unfortunately, not all the maths she needs to be able to do will be cooking related.  However this certainly gave me a starting point to understanding the way her mind works.

Our Summer Plans

We intend to spend the whole summer playing with numbers.  I want to teach L10 the joy and excitement I feel when dealing with figures.  And more than anything I want to get rid of that look of sheer panic I see far too often on her face when she is faced with any type of maths problem.

We will start with number bonds and stay there until I can set her hard problems and she has the understanding and tools sufficient to solve them confidently.  Then and only then will I move on.  We will perhaps focus on place value next, maybe have a bit of fun with Roman numerals or even looking into the history of numbers.  Whatever we do will be geared to increasing her understanding of numbers in general.  I will concentrate on helping her to build up her maths tool box so she need never feel panic related to maths again, for she will know it is as simple as searching in her tool box for the right tool for the problem in hand.  I am doing what I should have done years ago, and dumping the curriculum.  I have found I teach maths much better without one.  Who knew?  I thought I was naff at teaching maths.  Actually, as always, I’m naff at using someone else’s methods to teach.  Left to my own devises, and suddenly everything is starting to fall into place.

I intend to share this maths journey just in case anyone else is struggling with the same issues.



  1. Very exciting to see how you’ll approach maths. I think maths is the subject that most homeschooling parents feel least at ease to ditch the curriculum for. I’m glad you’re finding a way to help L10. It sounds like she just needs another way to get into maths, rather than the conventional way.

    1. I look forward to sharing what we have learnt already. It is a huge privilege to get a peek into the way their minds work, and paying her the extra hour a day has been really useful for both of us.

  2. I love this post. You viewpoint on teaching and learning is spot-on to my beliefs as well. Quentin has a similar struggle with place value, as L10’s struggles with math. He knows that once you reach 10, it becomes 1 ten and 0 ones, and yet he still doesn’t know which comes first in writing down the number, and he often writes it backwards. He also doesn’t seem to have the concept down in terms of working with larger numbers.

    1. We’re looking into place study next, I think. I’m fairly certain, given the way she approaches long division, that she doesn’t have a full grasp on this. I’ll be interested to see how you tackle it.

  3. I applaud your decision to do what is right for your children. As a retired teacher, I know I am probably in the minority, when it comes to teachers. We are programmed to follow the curriculum, no matter what. Yet, education is not learning if there is no understanding. Just continue helping and guiding your children and you cannot go wrong. My hat is off to you, Claire.

    Myra, from overcast Winnipeg where we are expecting rain and thunderstorms today

    1. Thanks Myra. It was a hard decision to make, although made easier by her unhappiness with everything maths related. She asks to do maths almost every night now, which is a bit of a turn around!

  4. A major benefit of homeschooling is being able to adapt our teaching to the way that our child learns best. Some subjects may require more creativity and work on our part, but in the end the accomplishment of having them understand is priceless. I hope this new way works well for you both 🙂

  5. Good for you for trying something different to try to help your daughter. I really hope you have success

  6. a friend of mine has synestesia (sp?) where he sees numbers as having both a color and personality traits. It would be interesting to know if you daughter has those associations but has never vocalized them. my friend just though everyone saw the number nine as blue and kind of mean until he read about synestesia.

    1. No, she doesn’t, but it’s funny you should say about your friend thinking everyone saw numbers like that. Until very recently I thought everyone saw amounts like I did rather than numbers. It was only when my mum looked at me slightly oddly asking what on earth I was talking about that it occurred to me we all see things so differently. I think you’re right though, I do need to find out exactly how L10 sees numbers and then maybe I will be able to help!

  7. Don’t know if I told you before, but I was hopeless at maths until I was in 3rd year – about 14. I had a new teacher then and I don’t know if it was how she taught or if it just clicked, but I suddenly became very good at it, even algebra. I got a distinction in Junior cert, like gcse now, the following year. I’m so glad you’re working with her like you are…….not that I’d expect anything else. You are inspirational. xx

  8. I’m thinking we probably think in very similar ways, because I do the same thing in my head, though mental computation is not my forte, more from laziness I’d guess than inability.
    As I was reading this, I was thinking she’d probably really enjoy dice with dots rather than with numbers, because it would help her see the two numbers she’s adding together better.

  9. One of my favourite parts of home educating is playing detective for what works for each child. I get that that is a rather bigger task when you have 5 children instead of 2, but you do a fabulous job of it! Good for you having the courage to follow your instincts on this.
    If you can lay your hands on Jo Boaler’s “The Elephant In The Classroom” I think you will find it really interesting and helpful. It talks a lot about different maths learning styles and particularly addresses the needs of some girls. It’s a very readable book, I finished it in a couple of days (and was sad when I did, like when you finish a great novel!).

  10. It’s always amazing how much courage it takes to follow our mom instincts. Thanks for sharing your challenges as well as your successes! Cooking is such a great activity for developing math skills.
    Don’t know if it would help but has a show called Cyberchase available online. They cover a broad range of math topics like place value, perimeter, area, and even relative humidity.

      1. Sorry! I thought it looked good too! Maybe it’s available on YouTube…
        (more helpful? 😉
        I hope everyone in your house is getting over the sore throats.

  11. My (almost) 7yr old daughter has similar difficulties with math. She’s visual so math games and manipulatives work best for her. I look forward to following your new math journey.

    1. How wonderful that you know that at her young age. I do wish I’d followed my instinct when she was younger. Ah well, better late than never, I suppose!
      I’m so glad you are following along.

  12. hi claire, sorry to reply so late to all your posts about struggling math students, I ‘ve had some too. Did you read jimmie’s lenses on squidoo, she has some good posts on living maths here is the link:
    her others lenses are also very good,hope it helps , love from switzerland to all your family Myriam

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