5 reasons kids hate maths – and what you can do about it

Primary children in the classroom
Does your child dread their maths lessons and end up in tears over homework? We take a look at what’s going wrong, and how you can help.

There’s no other subject at school that strikes dread into children’s hearts (and their parents’) like maths. While some kids find it easy and inspiring, many others struggle with numbers and come to hate everything to do with them. Indeed, recent figures show that the UK is falling behind the rest of the world in maths attainment.

But teacher and mum of two Jo Otto, creator of Maths Rockx – an app for Apple and Android that teaches times tables by combining them with famous rock and pop songs – argues that maths shouldn’t be a subject that children hate. ‘Ultimately, there are only 10 digits, but unlimited different ways to use them,’ Jo says. ‘If you give kids the basics, they realise there’s nothing to be afraid of.’

So why do so many children dislike maths, and how can you help to turn their opinions around?

1. Maths is not automatic

Rote learning has fallen out of favour in schools over the past few generations (although it’s making a comeback with the introduction of maths mastery, based on highly successful Singaporean teaching methods, in Key Stage 1). But not knowing key number facts like times tables off by heart is one of the reasons children struggle with maths.

‘People argue that it’s old-fashioned and doesn’t help children understand how numbers work, but that’s just not true,’ Jo explains. ‘Practice makes perfect, and it’s the children who learn by rote and can recall key number facts automatically who love maths.’

What you can do… Go back to basics and help your child learn their times tables by heart. This doesn’t have to mean spending hours reciting tables over and over again; there are plenty of apps, games, songs, books and interactive worksheets that make rote learning fun, including Maths Rockx and Percy Parker’s times tables.

2. Maths homework is boring

Few children relish the idea of homework, but home learning is important if children are to become confident and proficient in maths.

‘Ideally, homework should follow on from what children are learning in class,’ Jo explains. ‘When they get a sense that their homework is giving them greater knowledge, it’s empowering.’

What you can do… As a parent, you don’t have a lot of say over what homework teachers set. But there are ways to build on what your child is learning and make it more fun. For example, if they’ve been given a worksheet on fractions, you could use TheSchoolRun's fractions puzzle worksheets to test their knowledge, or practise with real-life examples, such as cutting a pizza into slices at teatime as an illustration of how fractions are used every day.

Board games and card games, number puzzles like Sudoku, books that explore key maths concepts and real-life challenges such as working out how many packets of sweets you need for your child’s party bags can all help to put the fun back into numbers.

3. Kids don’t get it

In a class of 30-odd children, all with different strengths and weaknesses, some children may struggle to keep up with the pace, but be reluctant to speak up. ‘This can mean that the class moves on too quickly, and they’re left behind because they just don’t get it,’ Jo says. ‘It’s heart-breaking to see a child lose confidence because they haven't understood a concept.’

What you can do… Often, you can identify gaps in your child’s knowledge through looking at their homework together. ‘In my opinion, if they’re struggling with a particular concept, it’s absolutely fine to abandon the homework and spend half an hour working on that concept together, instead,’ Jo says. ‘Write a note to the teacher to explain what you’ve done, but no one is going to object to you being proactive and tackling a gap in your child’s knowledge if it means they then understand it and can move on with the rest of the class.’

4. Maths is ‘difficult’ and ‘not cool’

Disliking maths can be almost a point of principle amongst kids, particularly girls; no one wants it as their favourite subject. The stereotypes say it's boring and irrelevant to real life, not to mention too difficult. As adults, we often unwittingly reinforce these attitudes by expressing surprise if our children say they like maths, and talking about how we’re ‘rubbish’ at it ourselves.

What you can do… The first thing to do is change the way we talk about maths ourselves. Stop saying that you ‘can’t do it,’ and agreeing with your child that it’s boring; if you’re helping with homework and there’s something you’re not sure about, make a point of exploring the concept with your child and educating yourself, rather than ‘leaving it to Daddy’ or their teacher.

‘It’s also important to point out the potential of maths,’ Jo says. ‘It may not be an attractive subject to them, but there are so many opportunities that come from an understanding of maths.’ It’s harder for your child to dismiss maths as boring and irrelevant if they appreciate the doors it could open in their future career, from video games development to fashion design.

5. Maths doesn’t seem to apply to real life

Some subjects relate easily to everyday life, but children often see maths as something that happens purely in the classroom. This can make it seem a redundant and pointless exercise, and something they can forget about as soon as the school bell rings.

But, says Jo, this simply isn’t true, and if your child understands how maths applies to real life, they’ll stop seeing it as a useless, irrelevant subject. ‘Like it or not, numbers are everywhere, and we have to use maths in everyday life, in everything from shopping to journey planning to working out how long you’ve got to get ready for school,’ she explains.

What you can do… There’s no shortage of opportunities to show your child how numbers relate to real life. ‘Using everyday examples, like working out how to stack the tins in the kitchen cupboard or how long it’s going to take you to drive to a friend’s house, helps put maths into context for your child and shows them how important it is in our lives,’ Jo says.

To really make it sink in, tap into your child’s interests: for example, if they love football, show them how to work out statistics like how many points their team needs for promotion, or if they’re passionate about baking, use making a cake to explore mathematical concepts like weighing, measuring and calculating cooking times.