How Can I Help My Child with Math at Home?
Parents want the best for their children. They want them to experience a higher quality of life and increased access to greater career opportunities. Despite thoughtful intentions, many parents struggle to appropriately support their child’s academic development. If they push too hard, a child can become overstressed and overwhelmed, but if they choose to remain too hands-off, then he or she may never develop the skills required to be successful. In the midst of such uncertainty, we are seeing far too many students viewing math as a chore instead of an invaluable life skill.
As a math teacher, I have worked with hundreds of parents who can’t seem to find a comfortable medium between providing too much or too little support. This problem is only compounded by the fact that many parents struggled with mathematics when they were students and do not know how to help their children overcome the same obstacles. My response to parents facing this situation is simple: the fact that you care enough about your child’s education is more important than anything else. I do not suggest that parents invest large amounts of time relearning operations with fractions or graphing quadratic equations, instead I share the following tips, which focus on developing a positive attitude for learning mathematics combined with a reliable support system to ensure that your child continues to pursue math education beyond the point where others often give up:
1.) Keep Your Cool
There is a common misconception that only certain people are capable of learning math. The idea of being a “math person” has caused an extreme amount of damage to student attitudes and has given many of them an excuse to quit learning mathematics prematurely. This idea, however, is simply untrue. Just like it is completely reasonable to expect every student to become skilled in reading and writing, we can expect every student to be able to think and solve problems mathematically.
It is true that you may have fallen victim to out-of-touch teaching practices that failed to meet your needs as student and, as a result, you have adopted this belief that you are simply not a "math person." Fortunately, the same fate is not reserved for your child and he or she can surely benefit from the act of separating your preconceived notions of learning from their academic development. A recent study showed that sharing these negative feelings with our children can severely increase anxiety and degrade their attitude towards learning math. Education has been continuously evolving over the past few decades and no longer resembles the environment that many parents were exposed to. Modern students think about and learn mathematics in very different ways. Parents do their children a disservice when they impart their negative experiences about math education onto them. If parents want to support their child's math education, then they need to start with an open mind.
2.) Understand the Purpose
Just because you do not remember the ins-and-outs of algebra or geometry does not mean that you cannot support your child’s math education. It is, however, necessary that you reinforce why learning math is useful and advantageous. When parents say things like “you are never going to use this in life,” their children respond by devaluing the skills they are learning. As a math teacher, I can confidently say that your child will likely never have to simplify a square root in the real world. However, what I know for sure is that he or she will have to solve complex problems. We want our students to develop into creative problem solvers who can think critically and mathematically. Athletes perform the bench press not because they plan on being pinned down by a large amount of weight, but because they want to develop functional strength that can be applied in variety of ways. We need to start thinking of math in the same way—as a workout for our mental problem solving skills. If we want our children to stick with learning math, then we need to help them to understand why they are learning it in the first place.
3.) Hire a Tutor
This tip for supporting your child’s math education may seem obvious, but I really want to emphasize the impact that a one-on-one tutor can have. NPR recently reported on a study that focused on the effect of one-to-one tutoring relationships on student anxiety and math test scores. The conclusion of the study was that students who had regular meetings with an individual tutor had significantly lower levels of academic anxiety than students who did not and were better able to get through areas of difficulty without becoming discouraged. I understand that hiring a private tutor is a luxury for most parents, which is why the next tip offers an effective and free alternative.
4.) Reach Out To The Teacher
The number one thing that a parent can do to support their child’s education is to establish consistent and positive communication with their child's teacher. It is important to stay in tune with what your child is learning and to be aware of how he or she is responding to classroom instruction. Most teachers have regular after-school hours (which is basically private tutoring for free) for your child to gain extra help and small-group instruction. Additionally, I must confess that teachers tend to give more attention to students whose parents are more involved. This extra attention is not a matter of treating students unfairly, but when a teacher regularly communicates with one of his student’s parents, then, as a result, he starts to spend more time thinking about ways to better meet that student's individual needs. Parents should be aware that teachers have limited time and refrain from bombarding them with phone calls and emails. A weekly or bi-weekly conversation is perfectly sufficient, in most cases, for establishing regular and meaningful communication.
5.) Utilize the Internet
What happens when your child’s teacher is not particularly helpful or when you just want to expose them to learning mathematics in a different way? There are a ton of free online resources for learning and practicing math, many of which are aligned with the common core learning standards. Digital content allows for difficult mathematical concepts and procedures to be taught in ways that classroom teachers used to think was impossible. About two years ago, I started using animation software to make video lessons to help my geometry students to gain a deeper understanding of working with three-dimensional figures. The use of those initial animated video lessons in my instruction led to a encouraging increase in exam scores and the to the founding of my YouTube channel MashUp Math, which now shares animated content for all levels of common core mathematics.
There is a growing movement in education for embracing the effectiveness of using games for learning. In fact, a $2 Million study has just been put in place to further examine how video games can be used to engage students and enrich their understanding of computer science and math. Although I would not suggest that you encourage your child to play video games for hours every day, I would, however, encourage some kind of recreational activity that involves mathematical thinking--like playing with Legos or working on Sudoku puzzles. The cool thing about developing skills like problem solving, creative thinking, and spatial awareness through playing games is that the child has no idea that what they are doing is impacting their cognitive abilities—they’re just having fun!
7.) Be The Student
One of my favorite classroom practices is developing activities that allow students the opportunity to explain their understanding in their own words. It is an accepted truth in education that teaching others helps one to better understand what it is that they are teaching. This fact is often used to support the use of peer tutoring, where teachers group struggling students with higher performing classmates who can help them. When you have to teach something to someone else, then you have to stop and think about the best way to express your understanding, which ultimately strengthens your grasp of the material. As a parent, take advantage of these benefits by allowing your child to reteach to you what they have learned in school. Work through the examples together and ask them questions. Let your child be the authority on whatever the topic is. You may be surprised by how much of a difference such a simple practice can make on your child’s academic development.