For many people, math class is stressful. But often the problem isn’t the math itself: it’s the way it’s being taught. Anyone can be good at math if they’re lucky enough to find a teacher whose methods align with their personal strengths.

In 1983, Howard Gardner published his theory of “Multiple Intelligences.” He disputed the belief that “intelligence is a single faculty and that one is either ‘smart’ or ‘stupid’ across the board.” Instead, he observed that people rely on a variety of skills that help us resolve problems and difficulties. He grouped these skills into seven different sets and called them “intelligences.” Furthermore, he observed that each person uses a different combination of these skills: “We each have a unique blend of intelligences.”

But schools aren’t set up to accommodate personal differences. They are designed to be uniform. Schools are supposed to be fair, to make sure that everybody has equal access and no one has special advantages. But as Gardner argues, “We obviously look different from one another, and have different personalities and temperaments. Most important, we also have different kinds of minds.” So while the conventional method of lecture and note-taking works for some students, it bypasses the needs of many others. Students conclude that they’re not good at math, when all they really need is a different approach to learning it.

In his book Math for Humans, Mark Wahl offers tips on how to make math accessible to all kids by including all of Gardner’s Intelligences. Here are some strategies on how to tie math to the seven skill sets. Parents can use these ideas at home to help students study. Additionally, they could be suggested as strategies for teachers or tutors.

Math and Music

This child enjoys making music or rhythm. For her, music evokes emotion and a kind of mental satisfaction independent of rational thinking.

  • Use songs, jingles, raps, clapping, or rhythmic music to help recall and recite concepts or tables. For instance, sing the quadratic formula to the tune of “Pop goes the Weasel,” or the 4’s times tables to “Jingle Bells.”
  • Play music before and possibly during homework time to get the brain focused. If your child can learn to associate a particular song with studying a concept, remembering that song may help her recall the concept while taking a test.
  • Learning an instrument has been shown to improve performance in math. Music teacher Kathy Morey says, “The longer I teach and study music, the more convinced I am that the ancient Greeks knew what they were talking about when they included music as one of the essential subjects in a complete education. And particularly music and math have a very close affinity. Children who learn to read music and to play an instrument or to sing are experiencing involvement of all of their senses, kinesthetic, visual and aural, as they apply, consciously or subconsciously, connections that directly link to their mathematical thought processes.”

Math and Language

This student relates to the world via words, and enjoys talking, reading, or writing.

  • Describe your own thought process while you help: “I see that this is an isosceles triangle because it has two equal sides, and that means that these two base angles are equal.” Ask your child to describe his own thinking: “Tell me how to figure out which side of a right triangle is the hypotenuse.” Putting his thoughts into words helps him clarify his ideas. If he prefers to write, have him describe it on paper.
  • Make reading material available. Ask to borrow or purchase a copy of the textbook to keep at home, so that your student can read about ideas he learned in class. Encourage him to look up additional sources on the Internet; he may find a podcast or writer with whom he connects.
  • Talk about word origins. For instance, “The quadratic equation comes from quadratus, Latin for 'square.' The quadratic formula therefore is useful to solve equations in which one term is squared. And, a quadrilateral is a shape with four sides like a square."

Math and Bodily/Kinesthetic Skills

This child loves to move, and enjoys using his body to accomplish tasks. He may get restless just sitting and listening, and prefers to explore the world and manipulate objects.

  • Allow him to get up and move around during homework time. He may like to walk around while he memorizes formulas, or tap his feet while he works out a problem.
  • Create gestures that represent concepts. For instance, “3 points determine a plane” can be taught by making a tripod with three fingers and showing that they can apply to any flat surface.
  • Have him work on real-life problems. “We all got a lot better at math when we started working,” explains General Contractor Dave Wilson. “We had no choice. When you need to construct a door with two seven-foot stiles, you figure out fast that it’s better to buy one fourteen-foot piece of wood instead of two eight-foot standard pieces.”

Math and Spatial Intelligence

This child is very visual. She is observant, good with directions and the orientation of objects in space.

  • Try to avoid “just talking.” This child’s memory depends on visual input. Always have a piece of paper or white board handy so that you can draw what you’re describing. Using the same color to tie concepts together can be very helpful.
  • Use a lot of pictures, charts, and diagrams to explain concepts. Ask her to do the same: drawing a picture is very helpful when she needs to break down a confusing problem.
  • Point out real-life pictures of mathematical concepts: a stop sign is a hexagon, two walls (planes) that meet form a line at their intersection, and one eighth of a pizza is the same as two sixteenths.

Math and Logical Intelligence

This child excels at recognizing patterns. He has an intuitive grasp of how events relate to each other, and likes to determine cause and effect.

  • Encourage a lot of mental math. This allows students to develop their own, often ingenious, ways for working out calculations. This way they can increase speed and depth of understanding.
  • Encourage estimation and guessing before tackling a calculation. This builds neural connections by calling on broader understanding of contexts and relationships.
  • Make connections to other areas of math. For instance, 1/12 is a fraction. It is also the portion of a clock from one number to the next. It’s therefore also 1/12 of 360 degrees, or 30 degrees.

Math and Interpersonal Intelligence

This child is very good at perceiving the thoughts and feelings of those around him. He enjoys being with others.

  • Find a study partner or group. Allow him to talk and work together with friends. It can also be helpful to have him tutor someone who is struggling; explaining the concepts to someone else will sharpen his own understanding.
  • Tell stories about the people who create and use math. Talk about the cult of Pythagoras and how math equated to religion, or how you used the Pythagorean theorem to square the walls of the deck you built. 
  • Encourage him to see the teacher during office hours when he has a question. Teachers respond well to these friendly kids, and they’ll form a relationship that will help him enjoy the class more.

Math and Intrapersonal Intelligence

This student understands herself very well. She is good at reflection and examining her thought processes. She has a good handle on her own values, preferences, and strengths.

  • Talk to your child about how math is going for her. Ask her what she thinks her strengths are, and what areas she’d like help with.    
  • Model your own feelings as you attempt to explain a problem. “I‘m sort of discouraged because I don’t know how to proceed without a measurement for side AB. What am I missing?”
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings. “I can feel your frustration about this problem. Why don’t you take a break and try it later. If you’re really stuck I can help you or you can try calling Kristi.” Or “That was a tough problem – you must feel proud that you figured it out.”

The best math curriculum appeals to all seven intelligences, and good teachers look for ways to include all learners. But with rising pressure to cover an ever-increasing number of topics for standardized tests, teachers are forced to save time by relying more heavily on traditional lecture. Parents can make a difference at home by using techniques that appeal to their child’s particular strengths.