Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Maths and a girl who's afraid of failure

An old school friend of mine, Lilian, just linked me up to her blog. Like me, she has two kids and her elder child, Brian, was actually in the same school and level as Lesley-Anne in P1 (we also lived in the same condominium). Brian was accepted into the GEP but switched to ACS, although the whole family was already by then not in Singapore. Lilian's husband works for SIA and they were stationed in Germany, London, and now in exotic Moscow. Borsch soup, anyone?

Lilian is amazing, she flew Brian back all the way from London back then just so he could sit for the GEP tests. And her instincts were right, he was accepted into the programme. Lilian thinks I'm a laid-back mum, but actually, I'm more kan-cheong than she thinks (how to be in Singapore and not be kan-cheong??) True, I don't do extensive research on the GEP, talk to GEP parents and find out which school is more stressful than others (naively, I thought they were all the same, afterall they all use the same syllabus, right?) It is also true that I think the GEP kids are well looked after and don't need their every step to be supervised by parents.

But having said that, the GEP is a demanding programme. I may have inadvertently given the impression that if the kids are gifted, they will sail through. Let me kill that assumption right now. It is a curriculum designed to challenge and like all challenging tasks, it requires a lot of work.

I mentioned before that not all gifted kids can ace every academic subject equally. Lesley-Anne's strength is in her languages. As a child, she learnt to read on her own. I was a young, blur mum who pretty much thought kids should be left to play, so never deliberately went about trying to teach her. All I did was read to her a lot, which she enjoyed. From there, she picked it up, plus learnt a little in pre-school (very little, that school was a disorganised mess which frequently were missing teachers for months at a go). Stupid me therefore took it for granted that was how every child learnt to read and was genuinely surprised when Andre came along and had to be taught everything! In school, Lesley-Anne always enjoyed English and composition. By P2, her grammar was better than her teacher's, she was pointing out the mistakes to me. Again, it wasn't taught, she just had an intuitive grasp of languages. Her chinese is not as good since we don't use it at home, but she still manages to do reasonably well.

For Lesley-Anne, her Achilles' heel is maths. While she is able to grasp basic concepts pretty quickly, she often struggles with application, especially when the sums require a different outlook or a less obvious application of the concept. This is compounded by the fact that she tends to make a lot of careless mistakes. Ok, I know ALL kids make careless mistakes. But I do believe she makes way more than what is to be expected. Her term 2 maths exam this year was the worst to date. She flunked the test and scored one of the lowest in the entire cohort of GEP kids. When I saw the paper, I flipped. Every other mistake was a careless one, as basic as "7+8=10". The others were just concepts that went over her head. Granted, they were doing things like permutations and computations, topics that I learnt only in Maths C at 'A' levels, but still, like all Singaporean parents, I was concerned that she couldn't even pass the paper. By the way, in GEP, the base mark is 70/100, which means that is the standard you should try to meet for all subjects to stay in the programme. (They don't kick you out if you don't, but it's a guideline to assess how you're doing). For this test, Lesley-Anne didn't even hit 50.

So at the parent-teacher review (they have this twice a year), I brought up my concerns to her math teacher. Her teacher admitted being surprised at the result as she seems to perform ok in class. His observation was that she might not be "focusing" and that she blanks out during the exam, as some kids do. Following that, I had a long chat with Lesley-Anne about her frame of mind during the exam and it was very enlightening. I realised that she had a phobia of maths, fueled by her sub-par performance in the past. Lesley-Anne is very much a perfectionist, she doesn't like to attempt things that she feels she may not be good at. Once, in school, the kids were told to say what they were afraid of. She stood up and said: "I'm afraid of failure." (I do see the value of her recognising the problem, but still, it did perturb me to hear this from a 10-year-old...)

Anyway, I digress. So it turned out that because she feared maths and didn't like it, everytime she sat for a math paper, she would be extremely nervous. This would affect her concentration and ironically, cause her greatest fear to come true - that she would do badly.

It was like a lightbulb was switched on in my head. From then, I started to work on her psyche, trying to raise her self-belief and confidence. In the past during the holidays, I would sometimes give her some assessments to do, to help build her skills. We would usually both end up frustrated because the tests would be riddled with careless mistakes. This time, instead of giving her a whole section or paper, I asked her to do two sums. The first time I did that, her eyes lit up. "Just two?" And instead of the usual grumble, she shot off to do the two sums. Both came back correct. The next day, I gave her another two sums. And so this went on for most of the holidays, by which I had increased the sums to six.

I found that without the daunting prospect of having to finish a whole section, and having it broken down into manageable bits, she could wrap her mind around the problems. She also made much fewer mistakes and everytime she got them right, I would shower her with more encouragement and praise. At the recent 3rd term test, she scored 39/50 and told me she liked those topics. It's still only an average mark in the class but I think it has been a tremendous achievement on her part to overcome not only the intellectual but also the psychological hurdle.

It's still early days yet and it requires LOTS of patience, but we're taking it one step at a time.


Anonymous said...

Good for you!

Hey your experience described here sounds like de-ja-vu for me... In the sense that both my stepkids are notorious for making 'careless mistakes'. I think this has seriously short-changed them, but no amount of nagging can change that, I've discovered!

So, very recently I came across this book called 'The Highly Sensitive Child' by Elaine N. Aron, and it describes my stepdaughter to a T!

I finally realize that her careless mistakes can be attributed to a state of 'hyperarousal'--high anxiety, extreme nervousness. It short-circuits concentration, analytical ability, etc. Just cannot be 'cool', lah!

The book also describes accurately many of her idiosyncrasies that had made it extremely difficult for her to socialize well & also lowers what I call her 'functional maturity'. This means that her intellect is beyond her age but her ability to take care of herself in practical ways is that of a younger child. She shows extreme sensitivity to foods, clothes, people, situations, 'atmospheres' etc, often to 'irrational' or 'unreasonable' extent.

I don't know your daughter but she sounds like a highly-sensitive kid (but who's well-socialized & has high functional maturity). It would be very interesting for you to read that book if you haven't already :-)


monlim said...

Hi YY, nice to "see" u here! Thanks for the rec, will check out the book. Sounds like it's my daughter alright. Actually, I think I was like that when I was a kid too, very sensitive to things and people... the trait has to have come from somewhere, right??

peace~ said...

Hi Monlim

Maths is also my daughter weakest subject. She refused to do any math assessments that I assign to her. Tutition does not seem to help at all. I am getting very worried for her since she will be taking PSLE next year. Any good math assessments to recommend for GEP P6.

k said...

Hi Monlim,

I've been a silent reader for a while. I know this is an old post (I clicked on the 'maths' tag) but I felt so compelled to comment after reading a few of your posts. I have an older girl in P1 and a son in K1. My girl is so much like yours. She is a HSC by the way. Highly Sensitive Child. I read the book as recommended above and it describes her to a T!

She is also conscientious and learns fast. BUT she is poor in maths too. Especially in problem sums and questions that require more than one or 2 steps to solve. Then she would freak out, have a meltdown and she wouldn't even be able to calculate 5+3. True story. And it happened so many times. I realised why too, after going back to the book. Too overwhelmed. And that rendered her incapable of doing even the simplest tasks.

She learns piano too. In a class of 4, she has the best skills. The teacher is full of praises for her but always says that she needs to relax and enjoy the music more. I told the teacher she frequently cried while practising just because she couldn't play it perfectly. Ha. Does that sound like Leslie?

I'm going to take your advice and start off slow for my girl. She thrives with compliments (a bit hard to give sometimes and I'm not the kind to praise my kids when they don't deserve it. Argh)

My boy though, is somewhat like Andre. He's happy-go-lucky and has an over-active imagination. His only drive in life is food. Haha.

monlim said...

K: Isn't it comforting to know that other people share similar experiences? I hope it reassures you that you are not alone. All the best in your journey with your kids!

Anonymous said...

Hi Monlim

I am a mum of three boys. Eldest is P6 in GEP and P4 twins with the youngest in GEP. Yes, the middle child is in mainstream and counting his lucky stars every day. The reason I'm writing to you is after reading your blog about your girl's maths' journey is PRECISELY what both my GEP boys are going thru. Especially for my youngest. He's always having trouble with maths even from P1 to P3. That's why I was so SCEPTICAL when he received the GEP offer. And today he had a mock test and came back with 25/50! Yes! Most of them are "5+3=10" mistakes. I was very depressed. Coz I'm at a loss with him. And yes, he can only perform pretty well with small sections EXACTLY how you explained about your girl's. Sigh, I have done everything I can think of; sitting beside him for hours, giving him more exercises, encouraging him, occasionally knocking his head coz I just can't understand why he couldn't do the sums. Monlim, pls advise me. I AM EXASPERATED. Am waiting for the call from teacher for invitation to tea party. What else can I do? Thank you.

monlim said...

Anon: I hesitate to just dish out advice cos I don't know you and I don't know your sons. There can be so many factors at play here. Is it a mental block, ie fear of maths, like Lesley-Anne or lack of interest? If it is, then I think that's what you need to work on first. Mental hurdles take longer to overcome and it's not just a matter of doing more to "get it right". Takes a lot of patience and encouragement to help the kid overcome this barrier.

Sometimes, it's just a simple case of lack of aptitude. You may not like to hear this but L-A is in JC1 now and she STILL struggles with maths. She has done reasonably ok in maths in sec school, but it boils down to sheer hard work and slogging.

The only thing I can tell you for certain is that screaming never works (haha) and it just instils more hatred and fear of the subject. Try what I did but doing small sections at a time and focus on what he gets right, not what he gets wrong. It probably will take a while so don't expect instant results.

Be happy with small improvements and accept that we can't all be great in everything. It's a pretty liberating concept :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Monlim

Thank you so much for taking your time to reply and truly appreciate your advice. I will take note of what you suggested and follow diligently. You are right to point out that we can't be great in everything. Hoping the teachers think the same way!! Anyway, it was enlightening to read and learn from your blogs. Thank you for sharing.

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