Math Strategies For Struggling Students: A New Approach to Challenges

ALI Staff | Published  March 08, 2023

When it comes to math, teaching to a wide range of abilities is never easy. Even when it comes to the basics, some students will move through it more quickly than others.

To keep struggling students pushing forward without letting more advanced students get bored is no easy task, but what challenges rank the hardest to overcome?

From the moment math literacy starts, all the way up to the math skills one uses in their career, being comfortable with math is essential.

This doesn’t mean it won’t be difficult or that there won’t be a struggle, but overcoming the real challenges in math means using math strategies that inspire confidence, engage, and make overcoming the challenges feel like success.


Struggling student holding help sign up


Common math challenges

Aside from actually being able to process mathematical instruction, one of the biggest challenges students face is math anxiety.

Those students have given up on math before they’ve really begun. They believe they simply can’t do math and are up against a difficult challenge to move past.

It’s not because they can’t do the math, because they can; it’s just that they haven’t learned math yet in an environment that encourages them to succeed– that works with their strengths.

As rigid as math feels when looking at a basic equation, how you teach math is pliable. You can find the right approach to click with any student.

Math also contains much memorization, which isn’t easy for every student. Especially with basic arithmetic, there are certain things you just need to know. Practicing basic equations and memorizing math facts can prove challenging for students, but making the work fun can help smooth this hurdle.

Working math facts review into every class can help get that practice in without making it feel tedious.

You can give your students a small whiteboard and dry-erase marker and quiz them on a few flashcards for ten minutes each class.

Students will write the answer on their board and show it to you, so nobody is shouting answers out. Everyone gets a chance to respond and learn. 

As math becomes more advanced, you don’t lose the need to memorize information, so some students can continue to struggle.

Practice works here too, and you can use those same ten minutes to teach students ways to remember specific mathematical processes.

Offer up one acronym per day, review what it stands for, quiz them on what it means, and then make them use it to solve a problem.


Math intervention strategies

Beyond addressing common hurdles in math piecemeal, there are ways to make broader strokes that may strongly impact the entire classroom.

One of the best ways to bring struggling students into the mathematical conversation is to talk about math.

Math strategies that incorporate discussion, allow students to explain how they got their answer, and then let others constructively comment on their process– teaches everyone math.

Talking through how to solve a problem and hearing another student try, fail, and try again is inspiring. It makes math accessible and gives struggling students a better perspective. They also learn they’re not alone.

Even if you just have students work in pairs, this is an opportunity for those with a better grasp of the material to help teach their peers. Peer learning works wonders. Another student’s explanation might just resonate better than yours as the teacher. Either way, that student is learning.

Talking through problem-solving strategies can definitely help more students ‘get it,’ but sometimes math intervention strategies do need teacher input.

Maybe instead of having students explain their process, you review your problem-solving instructions. They may not be explicit enough for struggling students, so you can add a little more detail, like step-by-step support, before they even start working on the problem.

This way, you get ahead of any missteps and frustrations.

When visualizing and discussing still isn’t reaching every student, introduce manipulatives so they can see the math in front of them.

Have them count cubes, physically move the hands on a giant clock, and use real change to count out money — these hands-on teaching strategies can help make math more concrete. They can be the difference for some students who simply cannot yet visualize what’s happening when you solve an equation. 

These sentiments can be applied to math-based projects as students get older.

Allow students to work in small groups or alone to explore math on their own terms. They can dig into the concepts that interest them the most and find relevance to their own lives, then discuss what they’ve learned and teach others.

This work combines a little abstract thinking with some hands-on research. It’s a great combination for contextualizing math.

When altering in-class activities still isn’t working for everyone, consider giving those students some one-on-one time from you.

Extra tutoring may help make it more obvious what tools they’ll best learn math from. Maybe it’s something you haven’t yet introduced to your class, like graphs or charts, or perhaps they just need some extra review.

Your patience and time will go a long way, no matter what you discover.

how to improve math skills

Many math teaching strategies don’t actually start with doing math; they begin with creating the right classroom environment.

For example, if you create an inclusive classroom where you’re really able to get to know your students, you’ll better understand what kind of learners you have in front of you.

You can adjust your instructional strategies for math to accommodate.

Getting to know your students means learning more than what they already know in math as well.

You want to know how they feel about the subject. You want to know what they like to learn most and what about school they enjoy (besides recess and lunch.)

These are all clues to help you set them up for success in math because you’re adapting to their needs.

Once you know who your students are, you can begin to contextualize the math in ways they’ll understand.

If all your students are growing up in a rural area, bring in various fruits to measure when you’re studying circumference.

If any of your students profess they’re amazing video game players, work in some computer-based learning that helps quiz them on their math skills.

The final component of this safe and enriching classroom is attitude.

You want to keep it positive without covering up the struggle, so tell your students the truth. You know this can be challenging, but you know they can do it.

Nurture that growth mindset that comes from trying and trying again, but don’t forget to offer up your support continually.


math curriculum for struggling students

There’s most likely not one absolute answer when it comes to modifying your math curriculum to suit struggling students.

What’s great to know is that by combining different math strategies and understanding that all your learners learn differently, you can reach everyone.

Not only that, but by changing things up even just a little, you’re automatically creating a more engaging classroom, whether you’re targeting a struggling student or not.

In this way, you’ll hopefully tap into everyone’s passion for math or, at the very least, help them find success so they stop believing they can’t when they most certainly can.


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