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Summer program helps kids overcome math struggles

| Judy Berthiaume

Math has never been at the top of Sophie Topper’s list of favorite things to do.

Yet this summer the 9-year-old is eager to get to her math class every morning and she talks nonstop about what she learned all the way home, says her mom, Sheila Topper of Eau Claire.

“This is the first time Sophie has really liked math,” Topper says. “It’s a total change for her.”

Why the sudden interest in story problems, math facts and fractions?


Krista Young, a school psychology graduate student, talks with Sheila and Sophie Topper about Sophie’s progress in the summer math program.

The soon-to-be fourth-grader at Meadowview Elementary School is one of a handful of Eau Claire youth participating in the UW-Eau Claire Human Development Center’s summer math intervention program.

Now in its second year, the four-week program pairs kids — typically elementary school students who need extra help with math — with UW-Eau Claire school psychology graduate students, who develop learning strategies, deliver interventions and assess the progress of their young clients.

“They provide research-based math interventions in a one-on-one setting specifically tailored to each of the elementary students’ needs,” says Dr. Mary Beth Tusing, associate professor of psychology and director of the school psychology graduate program.

The graduate students work in teams of two, with each team assigned to work with one child.

Each team pretests their client to identify targets for intervention, develops an intervention plan, works with their student daily, assesses their progress, and, at the end, provides the parents with a summary of outcomes.

In their lessons, the graduate students use instructional methods already proven effective for at-risk learners, Tusing says, noting that methods include strategies like explicit instruction, modeling, multiple opportunities to practice a skill, and immediate feedback on correctness.

“All of the interventions we use are evidence-based, so the kids are participating in math instruction and practice that has been shown through extensive research to be effective,” Tusing says. “The one-on-one setting means we can adapt and tailor our work to meet the individual needs of each of the kids.”

The one-on-one format also means the kids get positive and immediate feedback and praise for their efforts, which can enhance their learning and build confidence, Tusing says.

That has been a difference maker for Sophie, Topper says.

“I see a huge difference in her attitude,” Topper says. “In school, she hates math but she loves coming here. She is super excited every day before she comes and all the way home. I’m grateful that she has this opportunity to gain skills but also to change how she thinks about math.”

Graduate students Krista Young and Jill Heitman, who work with Sophie in the program, say Sophie has a lot to be excited about since her math skills are improving as she learns to think about math concepts in new ways and masters new strategies for solving math problems. 

“I love those light bulb moments when you can just see it click for her,” says Young, who earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from UW-Eau Claire. “All of a sudden, she will just know how to solve a problem that she couldn’t have solved a few days earlier. It’s exciting for her and for us.”

Those light bulb moments are happening for all of the young students in the program, data show.

According to the data, all the students who participate in the summer program are more fluent and accurate with the math skills they have practiced in the program, and they are more confident in their math skills, Tusing says.

In other words, she says, the program model is working.

Equally important is that the elementary students are not the only ones learning from the program.

The 10 graduate students also are gaining skills and confidence, Tusing says.

“One of our main goals is to provide high-quality math support to students in the community,” Tusing says. “However, as a training facility, another important goal is to provide university students with a high-impact experience that will shape their future work as school psychologists.”

Through the program, graduate students practice and learn to recognize the key components of effective instruction, and they gain experience in data-based decision-making as they monitor their student’s daily progress, Tusing says.

They also learn strategies for keeping students engaged in academic work, a skill that is especially important when working with youth who struggle academically, she says.

By meeting the needs of kids and future education professionals, the program is a win-win, says Topper, who earned bachelors and master’s degrees in psychology from UW-Eau Claire and now works as a school psychologist in Eau Claire area schools.

“As a mom, I’m excited to see the change in how Sophie talks about math,” Topper says. “I’m grateful that she had this opportunity. I love seeing her super excited about math for the first time.

“And as a school psychologist, I’m excited that these graduate students will bring what they are learning here into our schools when they get into the workforce.”

An important part of the program model is helping the graduate students learn to work with a team to meet the needs of students, Tusing says.

“In their future roles, they will serve on problem-solving teams and will consult with teachers about the learning needs of students in school settings,” Tusing says. “This experience gives them insight into the role that teachers have in planning and individualizing interventions for students. The work will help them be better consultants on educational teams in the future.”

Young says the HDC faculty do an excellent job of modeling what teamwork and collaboration should look like among education professionals.

“They always work with us to find ways to make our interventions even better,” Young says of faculty mentors. “Their input and feedback helps us learn, which is good for us and good for our clients.”

UW-Eau Claire’s school psychology graduates are in high demand because they have hands-on learning experiences such as the summer math program, says Dr. Michael Axelrod, director of the HDC.

Those kinds of experiences allow students to practice and refine critical skills and try new strategies in real-world settings but under the guidance of experienced faculty, he says.

“We say that our goal is not to train our students to be good school psychologists, but to train them to be great school psychologists,” Axelrod says. “While it’s our unofficial slogan, we take it very seriously.”

As a result, principals are hiring Blugolds and immediately putting them in leadership positions within their schools, Axelrod says.

“They are placed in positions where they can help make positive change in their schools very quickly,” Axelrod says of school psychology graduates. “That really all begins with the opportunities they have here as students with the math and other programs.”

Young says she opted to continue her graduate studies at UW-Eau Claire because it offers so many high-impact learning opportunities. Those experiences will set her apart when she looks for her first job, and will help her be successful in a professional role, she says.

HDC faculty regularly look for ways to develop new or enhance existing high-impact programs, but are careful to keep them small enough so they can maintain the quality of those experiences, Axelrod says.

The HDC offers a summer reading program, which it also now runs in several area elementary schools during the school year.

The parents of kids in reading programs liked it so well that they suggested the HDC develop a math intervention program using a similar model, Axelrod says.

Faculty embraced the idea, offering the pilot math program last summer.

The math pilot was so successful that faculty worked with Montessori school leaders to create an in-school version of the program, Axelrod says. As a result, last year UW-Eau Claire students went to Montessori three days a week to lead small group math interventions with first- and second-graders.

They hope to continue the math program at Montessori this year and to expand it to other schools in the future, Axelrod says.

“It really is extraordinary that we are able to do this,” Axelrod says of having university students working with elementary kids in schools during a school day. “It’s unheard of in most places. I have colleagues around the country who are amazed that our students are welcome in schools.

“We can offer these high-impact experiences to the community and to our students because we have quality programs that we can prove work.”

Photo caption: Sophie Topper, 9, is building her math skills and confidence through her work with school psychology graduate student Jill Heitman.