Q&A: How to Deal with a Middle School Math Slump

Math has always been a perfectly happy part of our homeschool—until this year. We’re using the same curriculum we’ve always used, but my 5th grade daughter is either bored or frustrated with every lesson. How can I put the fun back in math to get us back on track?

If you’ve been happily buzzing along with a math program that suddenly seems to stop working in 4th or 5th grade, you may not realize you’re part of a growing trend: the middle school math slump. Between 4th and 8th grade, math grades and test scores plummet for students in traditional schools. In other words, that calculus class that’s been freaking you out may not actually be the biggest hurdle you face as a homeschool math teacher.

Math is one of those subjects not even bona fide unschoolers always feel comfortable leaving to chance. (For every unschooler, there’s another who unschools “everything but math.”) So the idea of cutting the cords of traditional math study to unschool may seem terrifying— and a little crazy, to boot, especially in middle school, when kids learn most of the math skills they’ll need for everyday life—statistics, rates, percents, basic algebra, and more. And even if we forget higher math and college admissions for a minute, these are also the skills kids need to thrive in the real world even if they never study astrophysics or engineering, explains Phil Daro, a math education reformer with the Strategic Education Research Partnership. They’re important. They matter.

And that may be the perfect reason for taking a hands-off approach to them.

By fourth grade, your child should have a handle on math basics: adding, subtracting, maybe multiplying and dividing. She doesn’t need to memorize more facts. She needs to see that math serves a purpose. It can solve her problems (how can we split this cupcake equally?), answer her questions (how many hours until our sleepover starts?), and help her make sense of her world (how can I figure out how high my rocket went?). To do that, she doesn’t need worksheets and lectures. She needs space to ask questions and find answers, making math a fun and useful part of her life. Instead of workbooks, stock your bookshelves with creative math books and manipulatives. Instead of answering questions like “How long?” and “How much?” when they pop up in everyday conversation, encourage your child to find the answers himself. As your child realizes he can answer these questions, he’ll realize that math—like reading, like science, like history—is a useful tool, and one he can use with confidence and skill.

Unschooling isn’t the only approach to middle school math, of course. But if you’re feeling stuck, it may be that a less structured approach to math could yield better results than a new curriculum.

This Q&A was originally published in the fall 2012 issue of Atlanta Homeschool magazine.