Feeling Stuck: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

Remember that feeling you used to get in school, when you’d stare at a question or a problem for a good five minutes and think, ‘Hmmm. Maybe it’s in a different language?’ When you’re a student, there are few feelings worse than thinking you don’t have a clue. Panic and anxiety set up camp and make it almost impossible to concentrate, let alone plan out a course of action.

And even though kids today have a wealth of resources at their virtual fingertips, many are still stumped by difficult questions, especially in math. Add pressure to get the right answer (and get it fast), and many kids give up, shut down and feel bad about themselves.

As a parent, it’s difficult to see your child struggle, particularly when there isn’t much you can do to help. For many moms and dads, things like math class and mind benders are distant memories.

But, parents, pay attention, we’ve got a teacher’s secret you should know: Remember those skills and strategies you learned in math class years ago? You use them all the time. This may come as a shock - especially to those of you who don’t consider yourselves ‘math people’ - but the truth is that problem-solving is a skill that every child, regardless of interest, inclination and aptitude, needs to know. So get ready for a refresher because we’ve got the how-to on what to do when you (and your child) feel stuck.

1. Identify the question. As kids get older, they are faced with test and homework questions that are very involved. With a push toward practical, real-world application, many students are asked to solve complex, multi-step problems on a daily basis. In these cases, it’s important to figure out what the question is actually asking.

This is easier said than done. The first step is to look for that question mark. It may not be the problem’s only question, but it’s a start. Have your child highlight or underline it. Then go back and reread the entire problem. Usually the first sentence is an introduction, and the second gives information. Circle any sections that contain information for solving. When your child gets to a section that is asking them to “find,” “calculate,” “solve” or “evaluate,” take note: these are question words. Have them rewrite the question(s) on a piece of scrap paper. Knowing what type of problem you’re supposed to solve is half the battle.

2. Reword and rewrite. Tackling a problem written in paragraph form is hard enough, but when there are a bunch of long, scary words you don’t recognize, the task feels insurmountable. Once your child has figured out the question, have them go back and reread the problem again, and write down any words they don’t know. Even if they aren’t totally clear on a word, have them write it. Then have your child look the word(s) up in their math book or the glossary or even online. Find a synonym that they understand and replace the scary word to make the problem more readable.

3. Find similarities. The problems that students typically see on homework or class assessments are based on material that they’ve learned. This is good news: even if your child is initially stuck, chances are there are examples they can use as a reference from notes or previous assignments.

Look back at that question from Step 1. Chances are there is a similar question that your child has done as class work or homework, so take some time to look through their book and binder. If your child thinks the problem is totally new, that’s a different story. Skip to Step 5.

If they can’t find anything that looks familiar in their class materials, talk about it for a minute. See if asking, “Where have you seen this before” or, “What does this remind you of?” can spark your child’s memory. You can even share your own examples, if you have them. Draw a picture. So often, seeing a visual can spark at least a starting point. Plus, you have evidence that they tried different approaches.

You can also look online to try to find a similar example. Reinforce the notion that finding the answer won’t help if your child can’t explain how they got it.

4. Break it down. Remember all that highlighting and circling you did in the previous steps? Now is the time to put it to use. Have your child break the problem down into manageable chunks and see where they stand.

On their scrap paper, make two columns. On the left, write all the information your child gleaned from their reread. Usually this will include some background information and a few numbers needed to actually do the math. On the right, write down what you are trying to find. Label each unknown with a question mark. Organizing information will help your child weed out the important facts from the problem, and ignore the extraneous stuff.

Note what type of operations (adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing) are needed. Write those down, too, so your child can play with the numbers a bit, and get some practice.

At this point, your child may be ready to try to solve the problem. If that’s the case, go for it. If they’re still stumped, keep reading.

5. Use your resources. At this point, it may be helpful to recruit additional expertise. If the problem is a little clearer at this point, take another look through your child’s math book to see if you can find a similar example. If not, go online. But be careful at this step: you don’t want to just google the question and find an answer. Even if it’s correct, it’s not helping anyone down the road.

6. Make it friendly. If your child thinks they might understand how to start solving, but is still unsure, have them make the problem friendlier. Some numbers just look scary to kids, so if there are a lot of decimals, for example, have them substitute whole numbers instead. Pretending your child knows what to do and going through the process with familiar numbers can build their confidence and let them feel some success. Once they’ve successfully solved one or two friendly problems, go back and try the original.

7. Try it again. Once your child has made it through these steps, have them try it again. Ask the question, look at what they know - maybe even draw another picture. Get everything organized and tell them to get as far as they can. Even if your child doesn’t end up getting the answer, going through this process will empower your child to struggle on their own. And struggling, though they don’t usually like it, is how kids learn best. If they successfully muddle through the first few steps, they can say, “Here’s what I’ve done. What can I try next?” which always sounds better than, “I don’t know what to do” or, “I don’t get it.”

Most important, having a course of action to follow will help your child the next time they feel stuck. Each time they tackle an unfamiliar problem, they’re more likely to stick with it and get further in the process until they get it themselves. And isn’t that what learning is all about?

Worth a click

Many websites claim to have useful tools, games and activities, but not all are created equal. Here are a few teacher recommended sites to check out with your kids:

www.khanacademy.org - Offers free information about math and many other subject areas; numerous videos walk students step-by-step on sample problems, helping them build confidence.

www.coolmath-games.com - A site with games in math logic and memory; levels go from easy to difficult, and are highly engaging.

www.ixl.com - Provides free interactive math activities (organized by grade level and topic).

Beth is a freelance writer and former teacher. Rich has been a math teacher for 17 years, and has taught algebra, geometry and college level math. They have two young children.


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