Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Dawdling and Inattention in Mathematics

    March 21, 2017 by Brandy Vencel

    Something happens to children’s brains when they begin to hit puberty, and I’m not referring to attitude problems. I’m referring to memory and attention issues. If you’ve been reading here for very long, you’re well aware that I started studying Charlotte Mason before most of my children were born. This means they were trained in the habit of attention from infancy. Is this a magic wand that means there will be no bumps in the attention road along the way?

    Solving math difficulties by applying our educational principles to pubescent brains.


    No it does not.

    Because puberty, people!

    I have this memory that still makes me chuckle. It was three or four years ago, and a number of us at our Charlotte Mason mama’s reading group meeting that night had oldest children around 11- or 12-years-old. We were all in new territory. We were discussing some issues that had come up with chores, and I was about to say something when another woman across the room took the words right out of my mouth:

    She can remember to scrub the dishes. She loads the dishwasher. She even fills up the soap container. But she can’t remember to press start!

    The funny part (to me, anyhow) is that every single mom of a child that age affirmed the same problem! Including me. That was what I was going to say, too, only about a boy.

    That’s right: children in early puberty can’t remember to press start on the dishwasher. It’s a scientific fact, as shown by my sample size of four.


    There is a fancy word in psychology for this, but I can’t remember what it is. (Because Mom Brain.)

    So brains begin to come unglued and the strangest thing happens with math, or at least we’re two for two at my house so far.

    With my oldest, it was something of a shock. He was born attentive. I never had to train him. But one day he came to me and told me he didn’t know what was wrong, his mind was turning to mush during his math lessons.

    I asked him to describe what was happening a bit more and it dawned on me that he was having trouble paying attention. We were both shocked. This had never happened before.

    Fast forward to now, and my new 12-year-old is struggling with a similar symptom. I’ve always had to watch her with math, but this is new territory. She sits down to do her lessons and she just can’t — she’s having trouble focusing before she even gets started.

    If it hadn’t happened before, and if I hadn’t had friends to discuss these things with, I would have thought this a discipline problem, perhaps. Or a habit problem?

    But really, it’s just Puberty Brain.

    So here’s the deal: we have principles of education. When things like this happen, we use our principles to troubleshoot and then find creative solutions. While all the principles apply all the time, let’s just look at a few that I found especially pertinent:

    1. Attention is a habit to be formed. This means that if I allow the situation to continue the way that it’s going — if I think to myself that it’s a stage they will grow out of, I may find this becomes the New Normal. I definitely want to avoid that.
    2. Knowledge should be various. Was the math lesson 30 minutes straight of the exact same type of problem? No, it wasn’t. But if it had been, a possible solution would have been to try mixing in different types of problems to provide more variety.
    3. Lessons should be short. This was the tricky one. 30 minutes is totally appropriate for 12-year-olds. In addition to this, they had both previously been doing assignments for this long without a problem.

    So what’s the solution? Turns out, I took a different approach with each child. This was based upon both the child and my own availability to implement the solution.

    With my son, I broke up his lessons into two separate 15-minute sessions. It didn’t have to be exactly this long, but that’s the approximate time he was looking for. When the first session was up, he was to finish the problem he was working on, put all of it to the side, and do a couple assignments that were completely unrelated to math. (Often, this involved a reading followed by written narration.)

    Did 12-year-olds in Charlotte Mason’s classrooms break their lessons up into two sessions like this? No. But, you see, there is more than one way to implement principles. I wasn’t working with nouns of a multitude; I was working with one individual child.

    My daughter is using a different math curriculum than my son did at this age. A lesson is usually divided up into four or five different sections containing different types of problems. In addition, the problems tend to increase in difficulty as you move from the top of a section toward the bottom.

    Warning: this solution is more complex. Detail overload ahead.

    A section may have any number of problems — sometimes, it’s quite a lot, and sometimes it’s only a few. If necessary, I draw in lines that divide the sections into subsections that contain some easier and some harder problems in order to make sure that she doesn’t just do the easiest work.

    I use a timer. If the whole lesson is supposed to take 30 minutes, and I spent 5 minutes explaining something, we have 25 minutes left. I quickly split that up over the sections in the lesson — 5 minutes here, 7 there, etc. — based upon how much time I think it should take and where I want to focus her efforts.

    Yes, this involves daily decision making. Ew.

    So far it’s gone really well. It’s true — the entire page isn’t done. But who cares? The point is to understand math, not to do a certain number of problems, right?

    The good news is that this doesn’t last too long. I don’t remember how long it was the first time, but I remember it felt earlier than expected when my son came to me and said that he thought he could return to doing a full 30 minutes at a time. He spends 45 minutes now that he’s in high school, and no further issues.

    We’ll see how long I need to continue timer sessions with my daughter. We’ve only just begun, and things like this take patience.

    As I look into the future, I anticipate having to deal with this same problem with my younger children, and that’s okay. I trust God to help me apply the principles to find a solution when the time comes.

    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit


  • Reply Cherylin (Cheri) N/A Hall March 12, 2021 at 11:51 am

    I was so glad to see this article revisited in this week’s newsletter, because it is perfect timing for our family. I’m curious, though – could you please share which math curricula you might suggest considering at this age? Thank you so much!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 12, 2021 at 2:17 pm

      With my oldest, we did MEP math all the way through. It was really quite wonderful, but it requires a level of attention on MY part that I have more difficulty with now because my younger three are so close together. I forget who I have taught what! One way to keep track is for me to have them in separate curricula, which is incredibly inefficient, but works for me. We’ve got kids using CTC, MUS, and Jacob’s. One thing I’ve learned is that really it’s about being consistent more than anything!

  • Reply Bek April 18, 2017 at 8:46 pm

    This so interesting and such a great reminder! Just reading through the comments has brought back to mind a documentary I watched a number of years ago that actually mapped the changes in an adolescent brain. It was astounding. Neuroscientists discovered that the brain of an adolescent actually deconstruct itself (neurologically) and then rewires itself, hence forgetfulness, irrationality and interestingly, a lack of empathy for others in comparison to their former sweet selves. The good news is that they do return to their former disposition (with the right nurture, support, and when needed, loving discipline). I guess it’s like when your favourite website is temporarily down for some upgrades but when it’s back up and running it’s better than before. Funny thing is that I forgot all of that, and my son is really going through a tough time at the moment…so emotional, defensive,forgetful and teary, so again, thank you for such great reminders.

  • Reply Jill April 1, 2017 at 4:08 am

    For us it was laundry. My 12yo can bring down his laundry basket, load it all in the washer, put in the detergent and…walk away without pushing start! Every.single.time. We also split up math into 2 sessions, and I really let them do it in whatever time and place works best for them. For my social 12yo, that means usually at the dining room table where he can tell everyone about the interesting word problem he just solved. For my introverted 14yo, that means whatever part of the house is as far away from noise as possible!

  • Reply Patty March 24, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    Anybody know when it ends?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 24, 2017 at 3:32 pm

      Ha! Well, at my house so far, when one ends, there is another beginning!

  • Reply Claire March 22, 2017 at 3:16 am

    So if 12yos can’t remember to turn on the dishwasher because of puberty – what’s my excuse?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 22, 2017 at 2:29 pm

      Ha! Mom Brain? (Well … for YOU … Mum Brain!)

  • Reply Virginia Lee Rogers March 21, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    See it’s this kind of down to earth wisdom that I’m so glad you take the time to make a post over. Because I have an 11.5 year old boy who my husband and I seriously thought was starting to have some character problems that we just could not understand the root of. (I mean sin, but these were so new to him and he’s not having attitude issues elsewhere.) It just did not add up. We had decided it must have something do with hormones and need of more sleep. So we’ve been going the extra mile to beef up the emotional support and listening, but goodness. He does truly want to do the right thing, but has just been struggling. Focus, extreme frustration, and overly emotional about things that just don’t need to be cried over. I mean tears, from someone who is not normally a crier. And it’s mainly over math and specific physical chores. Which have both jumped in difficulty this year too. So we figured that could be part of it. I’m going to show my hubby this post. I think this will help us think through some solutions a bit better. But I think explaining the “why” he is experiencing this would help him. I know reading this has helped me.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 21, 2017 at 5:03 pm


      You know, I just had a thought. This sort of thing is, I think, one reason why CM’s inclusion of physiology and health in her Mothers’ Education Course was so important — knowing these aspects of puberty can be so helpful!

      • Reply Virginia Lee Rogers March 21, 2017 at 5:38 pm

        I bet you are exactly right. Now I’m wondering if there is a good book for moms on this issue. Because most health stuff I see is pretty specific to certain needs. Like dietary and such. I think I’ll do a little web browsing and see what’s out there. And I’m wondering if that Nurture by Nature book you and Mystie have mentioned could fall into this category for Mother Culture course? Sort of thinking aloud here on an area I’ve never had to spend lots of time in since my kiddos are generally healthy. A blessing for sure.

  • Reply Tania March 21, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    Brandy, Thank you so much for posting this. You have given me an answer to a question I didn’t even realize I should be asking about my almost 11, early pubescent daughter. This week she was lucky to get 2 math questions done in 30 minutes each day. She has never really had a problem with attention before because she likes to get things done and out of the way as quickly as possible. So I was totally shocked that she had done almost nothing the whole time. There were many stern words spoken by me this week about being lazy. I didn’t realize it could have been a result of puberty. So thankful for the timing of this post. It just may have avoided a war.

  • Reply Christy March 21, 2017 at 8:58 am

    Brandy, I love when you do these scenarios where you explain the problem, review the CM principles and then show the solution you are trying. It gives us real life examples but we know our solution may look different than yours. Even within a household what works with one kiddo might not work the next. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

  • Reply Mystie March 21, 2017 at 7:48 am

    Sometimes the inattention is paired with emotional breakdowns, even in boys, particularly with word problems. 🙂

    We’re in this stage with my second, as well, and it took a few weeks for me to realize that’s what was going on. It was in making my oldest run laps every few problems (or whenever he wanted to argue about doing it at all) that he discovered a walk actually did clear his head and now he takes one before doing math every day as part of his morning routine.

    For my second son, I’m encouraging him to stop half-way through and do piano (his favorite) then return to the math. I’m going back to doing a little more “at elbow” coaching most mornings, too, even though it seems to me he shouldn’t need it anymore – the moral support does help.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 21, 2017 at 8:26 am

      What?? Boys can be emotional?? 😉

      I like your example here. It reminds me of Vittorino da Feltre, actually. He alternated, yes, but with lots of physical activity.

    • Reply Melissa Greene March 21, 2017 at 9:46 am

      Thanks for this post Brandy! It’s always good to know I’m not alone 🙂

      I have a 13 year old girl and a near 12 year old boy (will be in two weeks). As Mystie suggested boys definitely have emotional breakdowns!

      I like the idea of taking a break midway to do something else and then coming back. However, my children do not like breaking, particularly our son. He wants to get it done to move on and have free time. Unfortunately, he’s a box checker rather than a lover of academia. Any thoughts on this?

      • Reply Brandy Vencel March 21, 2017 at 9:56 am

        My son was the same way, so with him we had to have a conversation. First, was he really going at the right pace? I mean, it’s one thing to slow down if you’re struggling, but another if it’s just attention. So once we figured out that he could do more if we broke it up, then he just had two boxes to check, and that was okay…

        In a schedule there are really two things to consider — how much time is spent, and what is the set amount of work to be done. It’s easy for us to just focus on the time spent and forget about the set work to be done. IF we assigned set work that is reasonable, then we play with the times. At least, that’s my approach. Does that help at all?

        • Reply Melissa Greene March 21, 2017 at 12:08 pm

          Yes, I like what you said about two boxes. I’m already trying to think of how I could call them each something different…and yes, this may be considered trickery 😉

          Seriously though, I get what you’re saying about how much time is spent and the set amount of work. In this particular case, I think he should be doing a larger set amount of work than he’s actually doing as well as working for a longer time. I would expect 30 minutes and most days, I’m lucky to get cooperation for 15 min…Hey, I’m now thinking about the word cooperation! I think this could be different from the inattentive that you described. However, it may align more closely with the emotional meltdown Mystie described and maybe it has more to do with will than puberty….but then again, they could still be related in terms of maturity. Or, another factor that comes to mind is ability and reasonable expectations. Oh dear, can you tell, I talk myself in circles over this dear child!

      • Reply Mystie March 21, 2017 at 3:58 pm

        My second son really does not want to break, either. However, we also require that – eventually – every math page will be 100%. So, if he “gets it done” quickly, but has to spend extra time the next day making corrections, it’s actually not saving time, but making math take longer. After he realized that, he was willing to pause to save time later – especially if the break was to do something else on his list.

  • Reply Sharron March 21, 2017 at 5:39 am

    “Things like this take patience”. Truer words were never spoken! 😉

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 21, 2017 at 6:28 am

      Ha! It seems like there should be a stronger way to say that, doesn’t it? 🙂

    Leave a Reply