This year has been a difficult one for me, blog-wise. It’s been a difficult one for me kid-wise, too. Those two things probably meet in the middle somewhere. One of the the biggest issues I’ve had is how to write about Mazzy. Yes, it’s because she’s getting older and I want to respect her privacy, but also because bigger kids, bigger problems, you know?
This year, Mazzy was in third grade. Third grade, it turns out, is a huge growth year in school. They go from doing addition to doing long division and fractions, all in the span of one year. This was the year she started getting real homework, the year she got her first standardized tests, the year she had required recorder practice at home and the year she got access to the school web portal to log in and complete class assignments on her own.
Let’s just say— it was not an easy transition for her. She hated homework, wasn’t into reading and really came down on herself hard when she found herself struggling with math. It wasn’t such a problem that the school alerted us to anything wrong, but it was definitely a problem at home. We would get into huge fights about her doing her homework every night and then she’d want me to hold her hand through her math assignment the entire time, battling with me along the way, whenever she couldn’t figure out a problem.
Mazzy’s math homework was usually a page from a book called Simple Solutions, which has twenty questions on a page, each one completely different. One is an addition problem, followed by a geometry question, then a word problem dealing with dollars and cents and then a question about time. If the questions were all about one specific thing (like, let’s say, subtracting triple digits), I could have helped her on the first one and then she could have practiced the same skill over and over for the rest of the page. But no, each one posed a completely different problem, forcing her to confront all the things she didn’t know over and over again.
The reason for this, I now know, is because memorizing math functions isn’t nearly as useful as understanding what the problem is asking you to do. Also, if Mazzy was paying attention in class, she should have been able to complete her problems without my help. And, if she didn’t know something, leaving a question mark was a totally acceptable way to inform her teacher that this was something that she needed extra help with. The teachers did not want or expect the parents to help.
Still, I’m Mazzy’s mom and it was difficult to watch her struggle. If I could help her at home, then maybe she would do better in school, right? And then she’d know how to do it the next night without as many issues?
Well, there are a few problems with this. 1) Math is taught totally different to kids now than it was taught to me and I didn’t want to give her strategies that might confuse her. 2) Helping her figure out the answers one night, did not seem to help her figure out the very same skills the next night. It just made her more dependent on my help. And 3) the more I helped, the more fights we got into when I felt she wasn’t paying attention. And she was almost NEVER paying attention.
The evenings, the only quality time I had with my daughter after school and before bed on the weekdays, became a complete disaster. Every second was a fight to do her homework and then we’d have one battle after another until she completed it. Once that was over, we had to convince her to do reading and recorder, and then it was bed time, to which we would always get— “NO!!!!!! I DIDN’T EVEN HAVE TIME TO PLAY!!!!”
It was awful. I felt terrible for her. And after talking to friends with kids who did not have the same struggles, it seemed totally unfair that this was now the basis of our interactions. It’s much easier for a kid and a parent to get along if that kid dutifully does their math homework in a short amount of time without issue!
Mike said I needed to be less involved with helping her because it was hurting our relationship. But when I tried to pull back, Mazzy would come down on herself really hard. It was heartbreaking. I was left feeling unsure of whether she was sincerely feeling these things about herself or if this was just very effective manipulation on her part. I bought the book Mindset, which talks all about the “fixed mindset” verses the “growth mindset.” Basically, it recommends commending kids for their effort and hard work over telling kids that they are smart. Seems obvious, but there are a lot of ways I was feeding into the fixed mindset that I didn’t realize. And Mazzy’s behavior seemed pretty textbook as a result. I remember someone showing me a blog post back when Mazzy was a toddler about how parents shouldn’t use words like “good job” or “you’re so smart!” I scoffed at it at the time, but now I was seeing the consequences of everything I had communicated incorrectly.
Another issue we were having in the evenings is that Mazzy was requiring so much of my attention that Harlow would get upset. Keep in mind, we live in a small NYC apartment, so figuring out a quiet space to do homework and a separate place for daddy to have fun with Harlow is nearly impossible. Mazzy would get distracted and jealous. Harlow would get needy and demanding. I used to think getting them to eat vegetables at dinner was hard— navigating homework time was SO MUCH WORSE.
I decided to contact the school to see what I could do to help the situation. Was Mazzy’s homework too challenging? Was I doing something wrong? Was Mazzy having an issue that required more serious intervention?
It was still pretty early in the year and her teacher didn’t seem overly concerned in any other areas but math. She had noticed that Mazzy was behind the other kids and much slower to pick up on the new material because she didn’t have the foundations or basics down. It seemed to me that Mazzy was learning everything for the first time, but according to the teacher, she had learned the basics in previous years, she just had never brought it home and for whatever reason, it didn’t sink in.
I decided the best course of action was to get Mazzy a math tutor. The school helped me find one and she came once a week. Mazzy hated the math tutor, obviously, and would hide under my bed when she came. But, when I forced her out of my room to work with her, Mazzy was on her best behavior and they worked together very calmly and efficiently. It was a nice little window into how she must behave at school, with people other than her mother giving instruction. At the beginning of their session, the tutor would go through Mazzy’s math homework with her, so ‘math tutor days’ felt like a relief to me. She wouldn’t have to do her homework later that evening and we could actually have some nice quality time together.
After just three weeks of the tutor, I noticed a huge jump in Mazzy’s confidence level. Her teacher noticed too. She was paying attention more attention in class and even raising her hand occasionally. We both agreed that Mazzy had just been totally lost those first few months of school and really needed the one-on-one attention.
After a few more sessions with the tutor, Mazzy and I started to battle less about homework. She could do more problems on her own and was confident putting a question mark when she felt she hadn’t learned something yet. Don’t get me wrong— there were still fights, but they weren’t nearly as dramatic. Once we convinced her to sit down and do her work, she could get through a lot of it on her own. She also started doing her math homework between school and her after school activities, when time allowed, which freed up more play time later in the evenings.
In terms of her self-esteem, I would do things like give her a stack of quarters and tell her she had to give me one back, each time she put herself down. That was very effective. I also tried my best to follow Mindset’s rules of commending her for working extra hard instead of for getting the right answers.
Mid-year, I went to a math seminar at the school which was very interesting. At the time, Mazzy was still complaining about being slower than some of the other kids at school when it came to figuring out the problems. Or she would get really mad when she arrived at the incorrect answer. The speaker emphasized that the math skills that are valuable now aren’t the same as the ones that were valuable when we were growing up. Anyone can use a calculator or a computer for speed and accuracy. What’s more important is understanding the underlying concepts and knowing what to do with the numbers presented. That was helpful because the next time Mazzy came down on herself for getting something wrong, I was able to point to her paper and say— that’s why your teacher wants you to show your work. Your process was correct, even if you made a mistake in the calculation. Process is more important.
Speed forward to a month or so ago, Mazzy was once again fighting me about the math teacher coming. But this time, instead of saying she didn’t want to do it, she was saying that she didn’t think she needed her anymore. I talked to Mazzy’s teacher and she agreed. Mazzy had made a ton of progress and was not only caught up, but maybe even a little bit ahead.
It was so amazing being able to go to Mazzy and tell her that I had spoken to her teacher and we agreed that her math tutor wasn’t necessary anymore. Not only did it feel like a relief and a reward for Mazzy, it also played perfectly into everything I had learned about the growth mindset. Mazzy now had the experience of having to work extra hard to catch up in class and that hard work pay off. It was not about her being smart or good at math. It was about putting in the work to achieve something.
As someone who always skated by pretty easily, but never really excelled in anything when I was in school, I believe this third grade math struggle was actually the best thing that could have happened in terms of future growth.
I am so proud of Mazzy. She worked hard.
NOTE: Obviously, this is easy to write about now, because we have a happy ending. And the insight to know that if Mazzy starts struggling again, getting a tutor is very effective. If this had gone differently and there was a more serious issue, I’m not sure how or if I would have addressed it. One of the reasons I started the “Remarkably Average Parenting” group is so I (and all the members!) can have a place to ask questions and get advice in real time, in a much less public way than on my blog.
What has your experience been with homework, math struggles, or third grade in general? Please share in the comments!