Challenges with maths? A school psychologist could help

Statistically speaking, 5-8% of children meet the criteria for a mathematics learning disability.

Kids who have challenges with maths at a young age also tend to experience these challenges throughout their education. Identifying these children and providing them with appropriate supports early on is therefore crucial.

In my doctoral studies, I am training to become a school psychologist.

I am also exploring how school psychologists’ math knowledge and “number sense” relates to their potential to support math. Maths educators define number sense as being about awareness of number and quantity, counting, estimation and number patterns or, more broadly, flexibly thinking with numbers.

Extreme math feelings

The good news is that children seem to have a positive outlook towards math upon starting school. However, by Grade 2, students’ feelings about maths become largely influenced by their perceived skill level.

Simply put, for most kids if they think they’re good at math, they like it, and if they think they’re bad at it, they don’t.

School psychologists as math supports

School psychologists’ roles and responsibilities include assessment, consultation and intervention. They can work with students, families, teachers or consult about systems.

Generally speaking, children can be referred, often by parents or teachers, to see a school psychologist when they are experiencing learning, social-emotional or behavioural challenges.

Whole-child approach

School psychologists are trained to take a whole-child approach to understanding how various factors – such as cognitive, emotional or behavioral ones – come together to influence a student’s functioning.

They can act as a kind of detective, where they investigate what child-specific and contextual factors may be interacting and influencing a child’s learning. With this information, psychologists can target and tailor math support to a specific child’s needs.

In my preliminary research, I have found that many school psychologists have high levels of math knowledge, and are thus potentially well-positioned to support students who are struggling with maths.

That said, school psychologists typically serve as generalists, much like family doctors, so it is likely that their level of maths expertise varies according to personal interest and specialization. They are also often in high demand so accessing their services can involve a long wait time.

Math experiences at home

The good news is that creating maths experiences with children at home is beneficial and parental involvement is a contributor to numeracy development.

Here are some strategies that can be used at home:

1. Keep it positive and make it fun:

Within a field called positive psychology, there is something known as the “broaden and build theory” which proposes that when people experience positive emotions, including interest, it builds a person’s ability to succeed by promoting more divergent thinking, creativity and engagement. Over time, this facilitates skill development. Playing fun games that have maths content can be one way to quickly engage children and build positive feelings that allow them to be more available for learning.

2. Make it relevant and practical:

There are many daily ways maths can be relevant to children – from using money to measuring hockey sticks to see if they’ll fit in the car. Other examples can include thinking about activities: If I want to make cookies, how do I get half a cup of butter? If I’m playing a game of cards and I accidentally handed out eight cards instead of five, how many do I need to take back? Or if I am choosing a spoon to eat my ice cream with, which spoon is largest? Look for the little moments to discuss comparison, measurement, subtraction and addition.

3. Praise the effort and process, not the result:

Learning is hard work. Praising kids for their efforts and the process of solving problems is more important than the end result. Praise can help encourage kids to keep trying rather than feeling disheartened for being “wrong”.

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