Just like no two humans are alike, different students struggle at different points along the path. However, if google searchers are to be believed, fourth grade seems to be a common sticking point for students across characteristics and locations. So what makes fourth grade math so hard?
When I asked this question to teachers and parents alike, a few themes emerged. Firstly, fourth grade math tends to be challenging in part because of the developmental stage children tend to enter right around that grade. Of course, this is going to lead to challenges throughout the curriculum, not just math. But sometimes math is the “canary in the coal mine” for academic struggles, particularly those related to social influences (see myriad studies on how girls’ performance in mathematics can often shift around middle school).
Secondly, academic expectations shift throughout the K-8 years, and a first major change in expectations seems to start setting in around fourth grade. Learning has gradually become less about play and more about taking in information. Students have been practicing sitting in their seats longer and longer. And fourth grade seems to be that first point where these expectations start to come together in a larger way with higher expectations of more academic-style learning.
Thirdly, the math in the fourth grade really relies upon prior math skills that may not be up to the fluency levels that are expected.
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Childhood Social Development around Fourth Grade
Now, I have taken some developmental and educational psychology classes and have learned about childhood development both academically and observationally, but I am no expert. If you are interested in digging into this further, I recommend reaching out to a true expert in this field. However, I can relay here from my and others’ observations what happens with children in social settings around this age.
As we approach late childhood, we tend to start moving away from our self- and family-focused view of the world to note more and more of the people around us. Our friends and other outsiders start having a stronger influence on us, our thoughts, opinions, and behaviors. We begin to observe and notice more about these people who have mostly just been riding along through life with us until now. Now, we start to allow their influence into our own personal worlds.
Erin (quoted above) observed this is the point where “they are socially conscious about who is getting math and who isn’t.” Seems to me this emerging social consciousness would be a critical opening to label oneself and to generalize successes as “I’m good at this” and failures as “I’m bad at this,” rather than what they are: single successes and failures that mean very little about future success.
(Here we’ll broach the ideas of Growth and Fixed Mindset, which are a hot topic in education right now. However, like most hot topics, its implementation is also filled with flaws that I do want to acknowledge. I’ve linked to some discussion points here and hope to have a much larger article about this topic in the future.)
Carol Dweck researched the “math gap” between women and men in the 1970s through the 1990s. The major results of her research indicated that math “success” often came down to a person’s mindset and approach to learning. Dweck summarized two general mindsets about learning as “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset.” Individuals with a fixed mindset expressed fixed or inflexible beliefs about their ability to learn a topic: for example, “this is something I’m just bad at” or “she’s just really good at this.” In this mindset, the belief was that either you’re good at or bad at something, it’s just an innate characteristic of who you are, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about this. Perhaps not surprisingly, this led to difficulty learning the desired activity.
Dweck’s “growth mindset” on the other hand was associated with the attitude that the person simply hadn’t learned how to do it yet and that current performance really is only a step in the learning and mastery, that effort makes a difference in learning, that mastery can grow. One of the better components of the current use of mindset theory in education these days (in my view) is incorporating the word “yet.” Helping students change “I can’t do that” into “I can’t do that yet” encapsulates the larger components of this growth-mindset idea fairly well.
So, what does this have to do with 4th grade math and what does it mean for you at home? When you notice your students starting to reach into the comparisons, help them reframe those observations into a “yet” framework. Intercept fixed thinking before it becomes a part of your child’s inner self-talk and help them understand and learn that their abilities are not fixed but rather can — and will — grow and change. Remind them that they have the power to choose where they put that growth and change effort, and that sometimes it takes time for successes to show up, but with perseverence, they most certainly will succeed.
Academic Expectations around Fourth Grade
When I asked Ruth, heading into the sixth grade, what was hard about fourth grade math, she noted that it was actually third grade where the shift seemed to happen for her. Erin, a three-time mom of fourth graders, affirmed this happens in those mid-to-late-elementary years (depending on your specific school): “[in 4th grade] school moves faster. It’s where my daughters’ school starts to hold them truly more accountable for the academic things.”
Whether it’s speed of curriculum, learning behaviors, accountability, or attention and sitting still, the expectations seem to make a shift in these pre-tween years. It’s also the beginning of that time when maturity differences between individual children start to magnify as some hit growth spurts earlier and others later. While some welcome the structure and expectations, others struggle and push against them.
Again, this challenge is more about fourth grade generally and less about math. However, it all works together to exacerbate and create an atmosphere that enhances the third challenge.
Fourth Grade Math Relies Heavily on What’s Come Before
When I asked the question, a typical disagreement broke out between the teachers who responded: which is better — teaching how before why (like math class 20+ years ago) or teaching the why before how (like math class today).
Informed by significant research, including research on effective teaching and learning, today’s curricula tend to emphasize the why and encourage children to explore a variety of how strategies to develop strengths and familiarity. Other research, including trauma-informed teaching and learning, has led away from an emphasis on speed or other high-pressure situations.
SW, a 4th grade teacher, observes:
Older strategies of teaching algorithms first, holding contests of who can memorize the multiplication tables fastest, and timed/speed tests for facts certainly would address this directly. However, they came with their own problems and issues. (How many of you have math-related fears built on those very foundations?)
CD, a former 4th grade teacher, observes:
When they understand how a problem works, it really doesn’t matter how they get there (but I do believe they should be able to explain it). If kids don’t have a solid foundation of all of the operations up to 10 though, they will struggle just because of the time it will take to solve the problem.
Even though they’re our children are being taught for understanding, they frequently aren’t being taught for fluency.
And that lack of fluency makes fourth grade (and higher) math hard when they have to start using combining ideas into larger and more involved problems.
So what can you do as parents? What are some ways to build that fluency with the earlier arithmetic skills that support a deep understanding but don’t create trauma-informed math avoidance?
- Use everyday math with your children. Have them help you budget the grocery list. Practice estimating with them (make it fun by using strange units: how many elephants long do you think this parking lot is). If you’re curious about ideas for this, search the hashtag #tmwyk (“talking math with your kids”) in your favorite social media spot (this hashtag has been particularly effective on Twitter).
- When you see mathematics in the world, ask your child what they notice and what they wonder. Some examples of this are in my Summer of Arrays video if you want to see more concrete ideas.
- Play games such as Prime Climb (affiliate link).
- Use research-informed flashcard-style learning such as Multiplication by Heart.
For ideas specific to learning the multiplication tables, check out my post How to Learn Multiplication Facts.
The main idea is to play repeatedly and frequently with math, with numbers, with numeracy, and with patterns in a fun, relaxed way. It’s that repetition and frequency that will build fluency, and the fun that will keep both the child and the child’s brain happy and open to learning.
Check out my post on factoring numbers for more ideas specific to building fluency with multiplication facts.
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