Math Is NOT a Four-Letter Word!



Reducing Algebra Stress

I know a word that can make even a group of seasoned homeschoolers groan. Can you guess what it is? Algebra! But it doesn’t have to be that way. While I don’t have a secret weapon that will make math your child’s favorite subject, I can offer some suggestions to reduce the algebra stress and make it easier for both of you.

Wait until your child is ready. This is probably the most important advice I have for reducing algebra stress. From the time our children are tiny, we parents are prone to playing the comparison game. Did Jimmy walk at nine months while the Evans’ child was nearly a year-and-a-half? Did the Ortega’s daughter potty train at two years old while Ella is still in pull-ups at three? We take pride in our early learners and agonize over the later ones. This attitude is unfortunately carried into high school as well, where many homeschoolers rush their children into advanced subjects such as higher-level math.

I was four when I began public school, a full year younger than the majority of my classmates. While I was academically ready for kindergarten, the age discrepancy showed up with a vengeance in junior high. I had always gotten A’s in math, one of my favorite subjects. Then came pre-algebra my eighth-grade year. Suddenly, my teacher was speaking a foreign language I had never heard before, and I struggled to keep up. Just as suddenly, in my freshman year, math made sense again.

It wasn’t until I was in my education courses at college that I learned why this probably happened. There is a huge shift in cognitive development that occurs between the ages of eleven and fourteen. Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher, described this shift as a change from concrete operational to formal operational. A child in the concrete operational stage needs objects and concrete examples in order to solve problems, while someone in the formal operational stage can think abstractly. If a child has not yet reached the formal operational stage, abstract concepts such as algebra may seem like gibberish.

Giving your child a little more time to develop cognitively can make a huge difference.

Use “manipulatives.” Many believe that manipulatives (concrete objects used to teach math concepts) are only for primary students. This is unfortunate, as manipulatives can make difficult math concepts much easier to learn. Once I was ready to learn abstractly, algebra became easy and even fun for me. I even created my own algebra problems and tutored a fellow student. However, I am going to tell you a secret. Are you ready? It wasn’t until I went to a Math-U-See product demonstration at my first homeschool conference that I understood how algebra works! You see, I had learned to solve the problems without ever being taught why the solutions work. When the representative demonstrated how to factor an algebra problem using the company manipulatives, I was stunned to realize that I finally knew why we followed those particular steps to solve that type of problem. Math-U-See has their own set of manipulatives to use for their program, but you can also use Cuisenaire rods, Legos, or a variety of free online printables as well.

Master the basics first. Unlike other subjects that can be learned globally, math needs to be learned sequentially. Because math skills build on each other, it is very important that your child masters earlier concepts before moving on to algebra. If your child isn’t comfortable with multiplication and division, factoring a polynomial will be torture. Take some time to assess your child’s previous math knowledge and fill in any gaps before jumping into algebra.

Two steps forward, one step back is still progress. If you begin algebra with a bang, only to find your student hits a rough patch partway into the course, it’s okay to take a break. Spend some time focusing on those fundamentals again and review any algebra concepts that have already been learned. When my daughter—who had always done fairly well in math—hit a snag, we both found ourselves frustrated and unhappy. Instead of attempting to plow on anyway, I chose to put our math studies in neutral. We spent several months reviewing all of the concepts she had learned up to that point. After a few months, we tried the new material again—and to both of our delight, she not only understood the new material but was able to make up for some of the lost time by doing lessons more quickly than usual. And, better still, she began to enjoy math again.

If algebra is stressing you or your student out, try one—or more—of these ideas. You may find that math isn’t a four-letter word after all.

To read more about Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, you can read my post on HEDUA’s blog:

Originally published at


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