12 Math Tips For Teaching Non-Math Minded Kids

Saxon MathNumbers are not my thing. In fourth grade, I couldn’t understand why they were telling stories in math. In sixth-grade, the teacher called my mom in to tell her it was time I stopped counting on my fingers. In seventh grade, math meant counting the minutes till I could bolt out of that classroom and start talking again, preferably to the blue-eyed basketball hunk coming out of the classroom across the hall. And my senior year, business math blew my 4.0 in high school. Business math.

Just because your son swears he’s going to be a missionary, your daughter swears she’s going to be the first US female president, or your kid can draw like Michelangelo is no reason to skip math. If my dad had said, “Math isn’t your thing. Go fry an egg,” or my teacher would have said, “You’ll never get this stuff. Stick to hairspray,” I would have persevered with my plan to be a beautician instead of a pharmacist then medical doctor.

So how can a non-math minded student be helped to succeed in math? For three years of high school math, I had an amazing teacher by the name of Mrs. Jackson; she determined my career course by teaching this air-headed girl advanced math. I’d like to share some tips I use in my homeschool today that I learned from her. Most of them will work for parents wanting to help their traditionally schooled children as well. Please, look at their math papers.

1. We’ll start off easy. First, teach kids to use their paper properly. This is no time to be saving trees.

  • When kids transition to using lined paper, teach them to fold the paper in half lengthwise (skinny-wise). Have students work problems vertically down the left half first, using the red line as their margin. Then, they work down the right-half column, with the fold-crease functioning as the left hand margin. When that side is filled up, flip the paper over and carry on.
  • Teach students to take AS MANY LINES as they need to show all their work. NO SQUEEZING or smooshing stuff in. If one algebra problem takes 3/4 of one side of the paper, then that’s what it takes.
  • Leave at least one space between problems, including long division problems.

2. Math needs a plumb-line. Enforce meticulous lining up of addition problems, subtraction problems, and decimal points.

  • Places must be lined up exactly under each other. Ones’ places under ones’ places. Tens’ places under tens’ places. Hundreds’ places under hundreds’. Not a hair out of line.
  • Decimal points must be perfectly aligned one under the other. Not a hair out of line.

3. To erase means to erase. Please–show some good erasing effort, and for Pete’s sake, never do math in pen.

Stray marks can look like decimal points or negative signs and cause errors.

4. Misery loves company. Show them how it’s done.

Mrs. Jackson always taught the new lesson on the chalk board. When she worked a problem, she never skipped any steps. She never worked it half-way and said, “Oh, you get it from here.” Never. Ever. I believe this was important for two reasons, First, when kids learn new concepts, for some reason, they tend to lose focus of older, easier concepts that they should know. Secondly, sometimes kids make it through topics with knowledge gaps. Showing all steps of the problem, including the easy, mundane parts, helps reinforce any gaps that may persist (such as canceling, reducing, dividing fractions, and so on).

She also didn’t skimp on the number of problems she did with us on the chalk board. I’d say she did about 5-10 problems a day on the board with us, mostly the new topic but also a little bit of the old ones as well.

Can you hand kids the book and a CD-ROM and say, “Go.”? Yes, you can. But I have my doubts that non-math minds will flourish this way. If you can’t teach it, I suggest finding a lively friend, tutor, local high school or community college, or a live internet class (and verify the teacher is kind and available to offer help before signing them up) who can.

And lastly on this suggestion, I’ve taken to using our chalk wall to teach math. It has been very helpful.

5. Have them copy the original problem down nearly every time.

6. Don’t allow skipping any steps when solving a problem.

Kids buck at this one, especially when the answer is obvious or if they’re especially math-minded, but Mrs. Jackson was firm. No skipping steps. (As they advance in math, eventually yes, more steps are skipped.)

7. Teachers and parents, remember, we have done more math problems in our lives than we’ve eaten meals. Don’t be condescending. Don’t let your frustration show. Encourage. Encourage. Encourage.

Twelve times twelve is not at instant recall for kids. Long division sucks. Do not become angry when the kids can’t seem to get it. When they make the SAME mistake over and over again, like dropping a negative sign or adding fraction denominators. It is VERY easy to call it lazy, careless, stupid, etc. I wouldn’t do it. Okay. I’ve done it. But I always apologize, call hard to my inner child to help me remember what it was like, and then encourage. No child ever wants to fail. And all your belittling and criticism does is lead them to anger and/or feelings of failure. Is that really what you want?

8. Calculators don’t come until you hit real algebra I.

9. Check their work daily and give feedback.

10. Math must be done regularly.

11. Math takes from about one to two hours a day.

Don’t try to rush it. Yeah, that’s a long time, especially for a homeschooler who thinks school should be done by noon.

12. Push students to their edge, and change it up or slow down when you meet resistance (meaning they think it’s too hard or they start missing too many problems). How can you change it up or slow down? 

  • Spend two or three days on a problem set instead of one.
  • Skip mundane, easy-for-them problems.
  • If they keep missing the same kinds of problems, then find supplemental problems for them to work on instead of moving forward in the book.
  • Do math only 2-3 times per week for a while.
  • Take a week off or two.
  • Do lots of problems on the chalk board together. Maybe see if they can do the work on their paper faster than you can on the board. Or have them do the work on the board while you watch.
  • Somehow expose them to other kids doing the same kind of work. Often, homeschooled kids who take extra-curricular activities can hear their public school comrades complain about math, and somehow, this make the homeschooled kid feel better.
  • Give them a test.


You don’t have to view your kids’ education as your job. You don’t. Throw your hands up in the air and say, “Enough’s enough. It’s not my problem. Nobody needs algebra in the real world anyway.” But take it from someone whose non-college educated parents gave it all they had to make sure that their daughter was doing as well as she could in math. How parents handle their kids’ education leaves a lasting impression. How will your kids remember you on this matter? School is the BIGGEST part of their lives right now. Are you showing them you’re interested in it?

Non-math minded kids can succeed at advanced math. And I feel they contribute such a unique aspect to the science and medical fields. So get them going!


15 thoughts on “12 Math Tips For Teaching Non-Math Minded Kids

  1. didee

    A great post Terri! A reminder that commonsense rules and consistency can make anything (but especially math) so much easier and more pleasant to do. Thanks for laying it out so beautifully. Really timely in our household right now.
    Regard & happy holidays,

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      I think that summarizes it well, Diana! You wrote: “…commonsense rules and consistency can make anything (but especially math) so much easier…” Yes! How true!

      Best wishes with your household!


  2. Simple Days Making for Exciting Adventures

    Great list. I think our biggest thing to tackle in math is the number of problems on each page. Why, why do math curriculums feel the need to have 20-30 math problems each day? Sometimes that is the toughest part. I know we can just go half but for some reason I have a tough time w that. Awe math.

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      Yes, I know. We have 30 every lesson too. It’s too much for my seventh grader. She does not have the focus for it yet. So we work some of them together (she does them on her paper and I do them on the board, and she sees if she can beat me done) and I look through the lesson and omit the ones I’m sure she knows. I can never get more that 15 problems on her own out of her, except the tests do have 20 and she manages that nicely. I think you’re right though. It would be better if they had 15 problems and then had supplemental problems if needed somewhere. That’s a beef I have with Saxon math; I don’t see any supplemental problems floating around.

      Hey—-Happy Christmas time! I hope you have a GREAT holiday season! The kids are growing up, aren’t they!?

  3. Elisa | blissful E

    I see in the comments that you use Saxon. That is an excellent math curriculum, but also perhaps painful. (There is much to be said for painful, but since you are talking about non-math-minded kids, I thought I might give a little shout out to the Life of Fred series. I use that as a supplement, and our main math is Stanford’s EPGY mathematics. (Not the new Redbird Learning, which has fancy graphics and is based on the “common core”.) It is spiral learning, like Saxon, but the nice thing is (a) the computer does the teaching (I get to help a little sometimes), and (b) when the student grasps the concept, the system moves them on.

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      Dear Elisa, Hello! Happy December! That was great to hear your recommendation. It is Saxon’s spiral learning which makes me sold on it. I was Saxon math trained since 6th grade math. My school used Saxon’s Math 7/6, Algebra 1/2, Algebra I, Algebra II, Trig, and Calculus. Saxon allowed me to keep all that in my mind, rather than learning and leaving it. I just loved its cumulative approach. I’m pretty sure for retention and mastery, I needed that.

      HOWEVER, I completely admit that with the last baby, teaching school became a nightmare. So for anyone in the position I was in, with a young toddler and a child entering more advanced math and needing more help than you’re able to give time-wise—-or maybe if you’re not able to teach algebra or advanced math due to insufficient knowledge—-it is wonderful to hear of options! Thank you!!! I think you know that I opted to have a friend take the toddler in the mornings so we could have some quiet time to do math; that was my solution which has worked for us.

      Do you use the tutor form of the EPGY or just the computer based? Is there enough illustration for the child to understand the problem? Does it use a person to show math being done? Or does it just show all steps typed up? Are there daily problem sets?

      And lastly, two of my kids liked Life of Fred. I thought it was really cute. My fourth one didn’t like it. But she’s more of a “Let’s just get this school done NOW and quite messing around kind of girl.” 🙂 So I also like and recommend Life of Fred, although like you, we used it as a supplement.

      I’m not savvy on curriculums; I’m going to go Google Redbird. I’m happy with what we do, but I love to see what’s out there for people!

  4. mommytrainingwheels

    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this. Most of these tips can also be applied to teaching math in school as well.

    I remember being really bad at math. By the time I was in 10th grade (managing to get into advanced math), I had to work three times as hard as everyone else just to get a passing grade. My very helpful teacher would often tell me “you don’t have to understand, you just have to do” when I told him I didn’t understand something. Yeah… ok, enough with the rant.

    I was lucky enough to have an excellent teacher the next year. Someone who really helped me with my reasoning. And he did this by answering my questions with guided questions. He helped me with my reasoning so much and gave me the confidence boost I needed, because after all, I was answering my own questions. I finished top of my year that year.

    Anyways, so answering questions with questions isn’t a strategy that works with just math, but it works well with the subject.

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      Yes! That’s true! I helped a friend’s daughter last night with her algebra. I did ask leading questions. Sometimes I get mad at my kids because they won’t answer my leading questions and they just want to jump to the answer—and they get it wrong! So yes! Leading with questions in progression is super useful!

      I also noticed last night that the girl had a worksheet and there WAS NOT ENOUGH SPACE to work problems thoroughly, yet that’s what they were supposed to do, work the problems right there. And the examples the teacher gave skipped steps. Anyhow.

      I told her math is like tying shoes. Someone has to show you many times how to do it, watch you do it, help you do it, and eventually, after tying them enough times, you’ve mastered that topic! I think teachers like your first teacher make math a bad experience. I believe this sweet girl was told, “If you don’t get it, you just don’t get it.” She got it fine after we worked.

      1. mommytrainingwheels

        Oh yes! I’m all for saving the environment but math takes space and lots of it to work out problems. At the school where I work, some teachers are exceptionally sensitive to the environmental issue at play. So with my resource students, we sometimes work on laminated 8 x 11.5 sheets with dry-erase markers. I then scan the work with my phone and send it to the students who have a computer for them to put in their digital notebook or print it for those who don’t have a computer and put it in their ressource notebook.

      2. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

        I’ve found that my environmental side is a little at odds with my teaching side. I think this is good for learning but bad for the environment. However, aside from math, as they get older, we use less and less paper! Yay!

        I see you mention computers. I wonder how you like computers in your teaching role. How you use them. If you think it’s helpful. Do you see it helpful for some students and not others. Etc.

      3. mommytrainingwheels

        Oh boy, I could write a whole series of posts on computers. I work specifically with teens who have learning difficulties. I think that for some, a computer is exactly what they need, for others it is a hindrance.

        In theory, to be allowed to have a computer, it must be proven that there is no other way to allow them to show their potential. In reality, I think far too many students have computers and far too many of them don’t know how to use them properly.

        I think that for a dyslexic teen, a computer can be a great help. It can read texts for the student (think reading comprehension in language arts or long text problems in math, for instance) which means that they can complete the reading part of a task in the same time as it takes their average classmate to read. The downside is that not every novel is available as a digital copy, and the OCR technology isn’t as effective in French as it is in English.

      4. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

        Thank you. I have found them helpful for one of mine who HATES the physical act of handwriting, which limited her in writing stories, poems, reports, etc.

        But I tried using it for other stuff to no avail. However, I am having some success with the oldest and actual on-line, live classes (Latin).

        I had two friends in two states complain to me about their kids and their schools’ use of them. Made me sad.

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