Statistically speaking, five to eight per cent of children meet the criteria for a mathematics learning disability.
Kids who have challenges with math 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.
When people think about who is involved in supporting math learning, the interactions between teachers, children and parents come quickly to mind. They may picture a tutor, grandparent or a classmate’s support as well. However, there may be another key player for those students experiencing the greatest challenges — the school psychologist.
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. Math 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 math 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.
This good-or-bad mentality is reflected in their views of seeing math as either easy or hard. Usually, once students develop their opinion on the subject, that perception follows them throughout their education and even afterwards. By grades 3 to 6 some students experience extreme negative feelings about math including hatred or even feeling sick.
With children’s perspectives on math developing so young and with such longstanding effects, this means that educators or families are encouraged to do their best to support those struggling with math learning, or those with negative attitudes towards math, while promoting positive engagement with the subject.
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.
The requirements to receive a designation as a school psychologist varies between provinces in Canada, with the majority of provinces either requiring, or moving towards requiring, PhD-level credentials.
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.
If math learning is posing big challenges, school psychologist involvement can be helpful given that a one-size fits all approach does not apply to math learning. Skills are not developed in a bubble without outside influences: children have thoughts, feelings, behaviour, knowledge, skills and experiences that shape their classroom engagement.
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 math.
That said, school psychologists typically serve as generalists, much like family doctors, so it is likely that their level of math 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 math 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 math 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 math 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.”