If you feel lost when your child asks for help learning mathematics, you can take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Teachers, parents, and PhD students—even biologists, chemists, and physicists—sometimes feel daunted by math. Add to that the fact that math education isn’t as static as we might like it to be. As we better understand learning and the human brain, the ways in which we teach math inevitably evolve. For many, the sorts of problems and strategies that comprise the “new math” can seem impenetrable.
But fear not! There is hope with growing evidence that your reaction to math, while completely understandable, is more related to how your parents, teachers, and peers talked about it than anything related to your brain.
Ways to Help Your Kids with Math
You don’t have to go from math phobic to mathematician overnight, but here are some tips to help foster the math whiz in your child.
1. Avoid saying you’re bad at math. Stay positive!
This is probably the most far-reaching tip in terms of how much it will benefit your child. If you feel inclined to say something like “It’s fine that you’re bad at math, so was I,” bite your tongue! Counterintuitive to many, research suggests that the concept of being a “math person”—or not—is a myth. Even if that’s firmly how you feel right now, one of the best ways to avoid passing math anxiety on to your children is by steering clear of negative messages about math. Instead, try focusing on difficulty and effort by saying things like, “I understand how difficult this is for you. It was difficult for me too,” or “Don’t worry if it feels like math problems take more effort than some of your other assignments. You may not understand it yet, but I am confident we can work it out together.”
2. Talk about math.
Talking about math doesn’t have to mean making a nuanced statistical analysis or debating what equation best models a phenomenon. Talking about math can be as simple as counting clouds or guessing heights. This is especially crucial for young children who need to feel comfortable just thinking about math and seeing that it is a part of the world. Depending on the age of your child, find ways to incorporate math into any topic you’re talking about as the opportunity arises:
- How many is that? How many would I have if I had another one?
- What would half of that look like?
- How could I split this equally?
- How do you predict this trend will change over time?
- What’s the chance of that happening?
- How can you make that more abstract? (The whole purpose of mathematics is to take ideas and make them abstract!)
- How many cards will you draw?
If you don’t feel comfortable talking about math, look for other ways for math to be a part of your child’s discourse and experiences. Consider watching movies and television together that feature math (for example, CBS’s former TV show Numb3rs for older students) or even simply hanging math-related posters near where your child typically studies.
3. Frame this moment as a chance for kids to explore whatever math question interests them.
Most teachers must get through a particular set of standards every year. That can leave students who are curious about an unrelated part of math disappointed or frustrated because there simply isn’t enough time to explore it. Standards and assessments are important but try to free yourself from worrying about whether your kid’s question is too easy, too hard, or even part of the curriculum. Keep in mind that math can be an effective tool to approach nearly any question. If you’re tempted to answer a question with, “You should know this by now,” “That sounds way too hard,” or “That doesn’t matter,” instead direct the curious mind to the teacher or active math educators on social media. How would they approach the question?
Moreover, connect math to what interests your child. Do they like animals? Have them explore how many animals are in a zoo, how much space they need, or how much they cost to obtain. Do they like fire trucks? Find out how heavy they are or how much water they can pump out in a minute. What about video games? Challenge them to record their scores in a table or graph.
4. Have your child teach you math.
Here’s a great way to learn something—teach it. Ask any teacher. Most will agree that even when it’s something “simple” that they could swear they knew inside and out, once they have to explain it to someone else, they’re forced to consolidate knowledge and try new ways of explaining it. When faced with a question that you can’t answer, explain that you’re stuck too, and challenge your kids to figure it out just well enough that they can try to explain it to you. Even if they help you only a little bit, they may spark insights that allow you to finish where they left off.
5. Try the new math.
If the thought of “new math” intimidates you, it’s understandable. How is it your third grader is taking home math problems that stump you?! Rest assured, the “new math” is no different from the “old math.” If you double 15, you still get 30. If you multiply 6 and 3, you still get 18. It’s not that multiplication, division, and fractions have radically changed; it’s just that we now have better tools for explaining them.
One major source of contention is how multiplication that previously took just a few lines to work through now involve seemingly endless equations and diagrams. However, it’s important to note that students are learning fundamental strategies that let them conceive of 6 × 3 in a way that extends to 60 × 30, 1/6 × 1/3, and 0.6 × 3,000,000. This way, they will be able to group the concept of multiplication deeply enough to lean on whatever method helps them, even the quick algorithms you might be more used to.
Instead of saying, “This is way too hard and confusing,” show the method you use as just another strategy. For example, “I’ve never seen multiplication this way before. Here’s the method I would use. Now let’s try to learn this other method together. It’s hard for both of us!”
6. Do away with “drill and kill.”
Those of us who remember sheets full of multiplication problems to be solved quickly might have a skewed view of what it truly means to master math. Evidence suggests this is why you’re probably wary of math in the first place!
Yes, there are standards, benchmarks, and state assessments. However, those are not what make up math. The deep, multifaceted tool that is mathematics is very different from the blunt hammer that is fast arithmetic. Look for activities and projects where math is only part of the challenge. Or look for games and puzzles where math is a code to be cracked or a grid to be solved. Count beats in music, and look for addition and multiplication in dance steps. Math should be active and playful, not worksheets of sterile and monotonous problems.
7. Take it slow.
One final word of advice. The same tools you might use to solve any problem apply here. Take breaks. Try a different way. Ask someone else. Everyone’s pace for learning math is slightly different. Consider the story of Andrew Wiles. Fermat’s Last Theorem was a math problem proposed in 1637 that anyone familiar with exponents could understand, and mathematicians at the time thought would be easy to solve. Here is one way to state the problem:
Consider the list of all numbers raised to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. powers:
- C2nd power: 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36,…
- 3rd power: 1, 8, 27, 64, 125, 216,…
- 4th power: 1, 16, 81, 216, 625, 1,296,…
- And so on
It is possible to find two numbers on the “2nd power” list that add to each other, for example 9 + 16 = 25. However, is it possible to find two numbers that add to each other in any other list?
British mathematician Andrew Wiles was fascinated by the problem as a child, and as an adult, was determined to solve it. He labored over it for six years until rocking the mathematical world with a solution that was over three centuries in the making. Learning math is most definitely not a race to the finish line.