Care and Feeding

How Can I Get My Son to Stop Making Careless Errors?

A boy doing a math problem on a whiteboard.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Ridofranz/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Any advice on how to help a 9-year-old boy pay more attention to his math work? He is very bright and uses math in his everyday life, but when he needs to solve an algorithmic problem, he tends to miss one small step, and then the entire problem goes off course and winds up incorrect. This is mainly happening with multiplication and division problems. He also has messy handwriting, does not double-check his work, and flies through it to talk to his friends. I am at my wits’ end.

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—Slow Down

Dear Slow Down,

You sound like a teacher! I have these conversations with my colleagues every day. We refer to these mistakes as precision errors, and they are the bane of every teacher’s existence. A student completes the 19-step long division problem correctly, then adds 5 and 4 and gets 8. Messy handwriting admittedly doesn’t help. A lot of math amounts to organizing information well.

It’s also tricky in elementary school, where assignments are typically not graded. If your son’s accuracy was attached to an actual grade, he might be more inclined to slow down and check his work, but when there is less tangible accountability, there are fewer reasons to take the steps to ensure accuracy.

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The good news is that some of this will improve with maturity. As your son gets older and he becomes more organized, and his handwriting improves, these mistakes will start to disappear. Some of it will likely improve when grades are dependent upon precision and accuracy. He will also begin to learn that taking the time to do the job right the first time will save him a lot of time in the long run.

In the meantime, here are two things you might do:

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Increasing your son’s proficiency with multiplication and division facts will help a lot. I tell my students that the basic facts are the alphabet of math. If you don’t know that 8 × 8 is 64 as well as you know your own middle name, math is going to be hard for you. Not only will it take longer to solve problems, but error rates will increase. I place enormous emphasis in my classroom on memorizing the basic facts, and year after year I watch as students begin to find more success and even enjoyment in math once those facts are mastered.

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A simple trick I use with my students to increase their willingness to slow down and double-check their results is to hand them a worksheet with 10 problems and tell them: “Choose any four to complete. Get the answers correct and you’re done. Get one wrong and you’ll need to do another until you get four problems correct or finish the page.”

First, kids love this. They love the ability to choose their problems, and the idea that they can avoid additional work by doing well the first time is very appealing. I never hand out any work without creating some choice over the assignment for my students.

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In the case of math, the goal is to find ways to incentivize precision. Place a premium on double-checking an answer. Motivate your son to see precision and accuracy as steps that make math easier. Help him to see that double-checking an answer is not extra work but a means of reducing the workload.

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I hope this helps. And welcome to the ranks of the frustrated math teacher. You’re in good company!

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My son is almost 5 and will start kindergarten next year. I am worried that he won’t be ready for school because he seems to like to do things the lazy way. For example, his preschool requires him to do a few worksheets every day, and he consistently starts his worksheets off correctly but then reverts to coloring or writing nonsense scribbles. The same thing happens with his handwriting practice. I’ve been working with him a lot on reading and writing, 45 minutes a day or so, since just after he turned 4. He’s made great strides in reading (he reads the Cam Jansen series for fun), but he makes sloppy mistakes on his handwriting. For example, he’s written dozens upon dozens of lowercase a’s at this point and knows where to start this letter, but he’ll still regularly start writing them in some random place so that they wind up looking like a Q. When I make him do it again, he cries or throws the pencil, but then writes the letter correctly, so it’s not about his ability.

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Why can’t he just do these things correctly the first time, when he knows how to do them and he knows that he’ll have to do them over again if it’s wrong? His attitude isn’t going to fly in kindergarten, right? We’ve talked to him a lot about the importance of being conscientious and about not crying or getting angry when someone points out your mistakes, but I’m not sure if the words are getting through to him. His last preschool teacher had a lot of trouble with him and tried to demote him from the full-day to the half-day program, but we pushed back because we have jobs. How can we get him to shape up before he enters real school, where he will face real consequences he can’t understand for not participating and not following directions?

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—Possibly Overly Worried

Dear Possibly Overly Worried,

You’re not possibly overly worried, you are definitely overly worried, and your kiddo may also be feeling a little overworked. Listen, your kid is doing fine. Keep in mind he is only 4 and he is already solving math problems and reading books well above his age level (Cam Jansen is recommended for kids 7–11). He’s also writing letters with success, even though he’s still in the early stages of developing his fine motor skills. As a second grade teacher I can say with confidence your kid is not only succeeding for his age, he is surpassing what’s expected of kids his age. And while it’s great that you all are practicing reading and writing for 45 minutes a day, best practice suggests that kids in grades K–5 read independently for only 20–30 minutes a day.

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One common guideline to take to heart is that most kids have attention spans equal to their age in minutes. So for your 4-year-old, long sessions might not be the ideal learning experience. Try cutting your reading and writing sessions in half, practicing for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon (or just 20 minutes per day). This guideline may also explain why he solves math problems correctly at first and then seems to trail off. In my opinion it’s less about him being lazy and more about him being mentally tired. From your letter it sounds like you want your son to develop a sense of perseverance and grit. However, that will only come with time as he experiences more trying situations and is encouraged to overcome them. So please, for his sake, be patient.

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—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

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My daughter moved into a new kindergarten class a month ago, and I’ve noticed that her new teacher often corrects her behavior on minor issues, like not looking at the screen and doodling during class. These corrections were causing a lot of stress for my daughter, and she was beginning to resist school, so I called her teacher to express my concern. The teacher’s response was that my daughter probably just didn’t like the fact that she (the new teacher) has stricter boundaries, and that I should contact the school counselor for help.

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Do you think talking with the school counselor could help in dealing with the teacher? Do school counselors ever serve as liaisons to encourage teachers to meet the needs of students? I was pretty firm with the teacher that the corrections for minor things need to stop, but if she doesn’t, I’m wondering if the counselor can help, or if I should go directly up the chain of command. I hate to add stress to the teacher by going to the principal, but I also need school to be workable for my kid. What do you think?

—Constant Corrections

Dear Corrections,

First, you were right to call the teacher and initiate the conversation. For reference, my own kindergartener is fully virtual this year too, and her (heroically good) teacher never addresses behavior like lack of eye contact. She also only corrects individuals if they are unmuting themselves to holler off-topic comments—and even then, she does so in the gentlest possible terms, because it’s kindergarten and the hollering of off-topic comments is part of the milieu. Kindergarten is all about learning how to “do” school, and this first introduction to formal education with very young children should not be an experience of frequent critique, no matter the format in which it’s conducted.

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As for what to do, talking to the counselor might help in the sense that the counselor could potentially lead a meeting that feels more collaborative and supportive than your first discussion—but it also sounds like coming back to the table for a solutions-generating session is not what the teacher had in mind by referring you to the counselor. As for whether the counselor will directly intercede on your behalf: no, likely not. Teachers and counselors are peers who work in parallel, handling different facets of the student experience, and they sometimes don’t engage all that closely with one another. A counselor would probably notify the teacher that they fielded a call from you and discussed the situation, and might offer their perspective or make a few friendly suggestions, but would not (and can’t) formally correct the teacher’s choices.

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Even so, if you’re still concerned about the teacher’s management, I think it could be beneficial to initiate a group meeting with the counselor. It sounds like your first discussion went in a pretty adversarial direction. Don’t get me wrong—the teacher’s expectations are inappropriate to the age and the format, and it’s really disappointing that she was so uncompromising. But firmly telling the teacher—who, again, absolutely needs to improve her management of distance learning, but who is also probably exhausted and stressed and uncomfortable with having her every instructional move observed by an unseen audience of parents—that the corrections “need to stop” is also probably not the tack I’d have advised you to take in your first conversation.

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If you do meet with the teacher and the counselor, I’d be really explicit about how much you want this to work for both your daughter and the teacher, and ask for suggestions and solutions in how your daughter can manage her energy and attention while remaining engaged and feeling welcome. (Wiggle chair? Basket of small fidget objects? Camera-off breaks to flop around?)

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If the teacher’s answer is “None of those will work for me, and I will continue calling her out whenever her eyeline drifts,” then you are fully justified in asking the principal for support as a next step—and you will have the evidence that you’ve clearly done your part to make a good-faith effort at partnership, to boot.

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—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

My 5-year-old daughter is in a mixed-age home-based school program this year. The program is all outdoors, and during the school day the kids have quiet time in individual tents. Lately, she’s been falling asleep during quiet time. The problem then is that when she sleeps at school, she doesn’t fall asleep at night until 9:30 p.m. or later, and she’s also then a wreck on the days that she’s at home.

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It’s not an option for her not to go into her tent, but the teacher is quite relaxed about what she does in there as long as she is quiet and doesn’t keep the other kids awake. Books aren’t cutting it. Audiobooks always work at home (where she also has quiet time, but never sleeps), but I can’t think of any easy way to send them in with her, even with headphones. Do you have any ideas for good non-screen activities that might keep her from nodding off?

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—Stay Awake

Dear Stay Awake,

To some degree, this depends on how lenient your daughter’s teacher is, but I think there are lots of options for activities. My immediate thought was that you could send her in with some sensory play options like rice, play dough, or even slime. If she can bring into her tent a tray or a bin with some kind of sensory activity in it, I think that would be a great option. It’s engaging, fairly quiet, and I’ve noticed kids often choose it over napping when that’s an option. The obvious downside would be the potential mess factor, but if your daughter’s teacher is relaxed, it could be a great choice. Check out options online for different sensory bin ideas. One activity my school used to do that makes great fine motor practice is to take putty and hide little beads or rhinestones in it. Kids like peeling them out, and it is good for fine-tuning those pre-writing muscles.

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If sensory play isn’t an option, or your daughter isn’t particularly into it, my next suggestion would be a sticker book and a stack of papers, maybe with some crayons. Little kids love making “scenes,” and if you buy a big sticker book with her favorite characters and give her some paper, I’m sure she can fill an hour or two. Sticker books that have pages with a background (like a sky and a meadow) and a related page of stickers (flowers, birds, and trees) are a great way to fill time too.

Third, if none of these work, you might be able to make audiobooks work. I had a student once who couldn’t fall asleep without audiobooks, and we found an old, cheap iPod on eBay, downloaded a few books onto it, and set him up with the classroom headphones. If you have a tablet you don’t mind her using, that is an option you could finagle with the teacher’s help as a last resort too. Good luck!

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

More Advice From Slate

My kid’s virtual kindergarten class had a pretend election on Election Day. When the teacher described what a president does, she used only male pronouns, and then she presented the class with candidates for “president of the forest.” Those candidates were a bear wearing a suit, a fox wearing overalls, and a naked beaver wearing a bow, presenting her rump, and making bedroom eyes. This is nuts, right?

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