Q: Our daughter, Celia, failed sixth-grade math and started summer school. She isn't motivated and finds it embarrassing. (She's never had math trouble before.) We've threatened to take her cellphone away, but she's indifferent. She says math is hard and the teacher lacks sympathy. Should we try an online course?
A: Online programs require motivation for a student to succeed, but it's an option, "and options are what you should explore right now," says Jane Bluestein, a New Mexico educator who coaches parents on student motivation.
Research shows that many girls do well in elementary math, but decline in middle school. As math gets more challenging, some girls begin to view it as a "talent," something you're either good at or not, while boys tend to view math as a skill to be learned, notes Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck.
"If this is the case, be understanding, and help her shift to an 'I can' mindset," says Bluestein. "Here's the approach: She's fallen behind. No biggie. We all do. She has a chance to catch up. How does she want to do that? Figure out the options. Let her know that not improving is not an option. She can have her 'summer' as soon as she passes sixth-grade math."
Schedule a conference with the teacher, including Celia. The teacher probably has more sympathy than you realize! Find out what Celia needs to be ready for seventh grade. Ask about your daughter's strengths and weaknesses; identify skills she can practice with a supplemental online course, and what evaluation will prove that she passed. Ask about materials, activities, games and online courses to supplement summer school.
Because the main goal here is improvement, consider a private tutor, such as a retired teacher, college student or a private tutoring company that offers one-on-one attention.
"Unfortunately, many summer programs are punitive in how they're presented to students. This way, she doesn't have to deal with what she considers a stigma," says Bluestein.
"Celia is old enough to control some of the choices about how to improve in math," says Bluestein. "Ask her how she wants to get caught up and pass whatever evaluation is required to exit sixth grade. Give her two or three choices -- staying in summer school being one of them -- as well as a list of privileges she can have, or regain, as soon as she starts showing improvement or meets the requirements that will be expected of her when she starts seventh grade."
Use positive consequences, not threats. When you emphasize positive consequences, you avoid negative reactions and put the responsibility on your daughter, where it belongs, Bluestein urges. Rather than say, "If you won't go to summer school, we're canceling your iPhone!" try, "Catch up on the content you need to do well in seventh grade -- and you have these options for accomplishing that. As soon as you do, you get your privileges back."
You might want to add her privileges back little by little as she starts showing improvement and commitment.
There are many local and virtual communities of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) mentors -- professionals who volunteer to tutor girls in these subjects and introduce them to STEM careers. Consider connecting Celia to one in the fall, suggests Bluestein, who says, "Seeing how to use math in a cool career can be a big motivator."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)