rocky foundation

Is Anyone Else's Kid Struggling In Math, Or Just Mine?

It’s not even a skills issue — it’s a lack of confidence.

Is Anyone Else's Kid Struggling In Math, Or Just Mine?
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock

My kindergarteners lost a lot of things: field trips, walking across that stage in cute little paper graduation caps, and valuable time establishing the building blocks of their education. My twins are now in fourth grade and have made many gains over the last few years. They’ve worked hard to make up for lost ground and learn how to be students when half of their educational career so far has been marked by topsy-turviness. National data shows that while students are learning at a typical pace again, they are overall behind previous classes. I’m worried about my kids’ progress, but one thing I worry about just as much is their confidence, particularly when it comes to subjects like math.

Math has never been my own personal strong suit (which is why I built my career on telling stories instead). It’s easy for me to empathize with my kids’ struggles with word problems and multiplying big numbers because I’ve always struggled with those things, too. I still use the calculator on my phone every single day.

What has surprised me about my pandemic babies, though, is their own lack of confidence in their math skills. Even when my kids know how to do something, they doubt themselves. When they tell me the answer to a math problem, it’s always phrased as a question rather than a statement: “16?” I can’t help but think their rocky educational foundation is at least partially responsible for their self-doubt.

I asked some friends with similar-aged kids and found I am not alone in my worries. “Math was for sure the biggest struggle of virtual learning, pretty sure we’re all still healing from how hard it was on us,” says my friend Lauren; her fourth grader is still struggling with memory math like multiplication tables. A college friend, Kelly, is seeing the same thing: “She second-guesses herself, gets anxious, and then shuts down.”

One friend whose child is not yet school-aged had some interesting observations about her niece and nephew, who had very different pandemic experiences.

Both are now in fourth grade. One had a parent who could sit and practice math with them regularly during virtual school and was able to secure extra resources when their child struggled. The other child had parents who were trying to balance remote schooling and working full-time and just couldn’t give them as much individual attention. The first child is not struggling, while the second is. “It’s a class issue,” she says.

I also asked a few elementary teachers and aides what they’ve seen recently in the classroom, and they are as worried too. A fourth-grade classroom aid thinks the skills are there, but the kids don’t seem aware they have those skills. “I think it started with skill, but they’ve probably caught up on that by now. Most of them. But it seems like kids who are gifted in every other area struggle with math confidence.” She’s not sure how to repair their lack of faith in themselves, though.

One school counselor friend said that her school has resorted back to using multiplication flashcard drilling in fifth grade because so many of the students are not confident with mental math. They’ve asked parents to practice five minutes per night, but that’s been a stretch for most families. “It’s been a problem in recent years due to the over-scheduling of kids and parents not involved in learning in general, but this year it’s definitely showing in fifth grade,” she told me.

All of this feedback leaves me feeling less alone but also leaves me with more questions than answers. I admit our family struggles in the evenings and has slacked on drilling facts. We strive not to over-schedule our kids, but we find they come home from the school day so fried that even asking for five more minutes of their time can be difficult. I often wonder if the pace of trying to “catch up” is catching up with them emotionally. I worry my kids are burnt out. We were also the parents trying to manage two full-time jobs, three kids in virtual school, and a toddler. It was impossible to be in all the places at once and meet everyone’s needs — trust me, we tried.

Meg St-Esprit, M. Ed., is a journalist and essayist based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s a mom to four kids via adoption as well as a twin mom. She loves to write about parenting, education, trends, and the general hilarity of raising little people.