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Even if your child is nimble with numbers, at one point or another, they might struggle with math in school. These math struggles will not only affect children, teachers, and educators but also, another critical group – parents, who may find themselves wondering with a voice laden with exasperation: “How to help my child with math at home?”
As a parent, you want to support your child to the best of your ability, but sometimes it may feel overwhelming. Besides, trying to remember long-forgotten math formulas is hard enough on its own. But now even the way in which math is being taught has greatly changed, so you might have trouble keeping up.
Fret not! We’ve compiled a list of strategies to keep in mind when helping your child improve their math skills at home.
Strategies to Help Your Child With Math at Home
1. Avoid Discussing Your Own ‘Math Phobia’
You may think that you’re innocently comforting your child by saying “it’s okay, I was also bad at math in school”, but think twice. Research shows that negative messages about math can reinforce one’s opinion about their math ability, which in turn, can contribute to poorer results from your child’s learning process.
In other words, for many children, constantly being reminded that their parent was “just not a math person” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that “I’ll never be good at math, either”.
This is because the deeply ingrained fallacy of inborn math ability is in fact part of a bigger fallacy that intelligence is mainly genetic. But in reality, while intelligence is partly hereditary, it’s actually a complex interplay of genes and environment, and can greatly be improved with hard work, as well as with a positive belief about intelligence not being a fixed entity.
For instance, one study found that children who simply believed that intelligence was malleable were found to report higher grades, compared to students who viewed intelligence as something that couldn’t be influenced.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be understanding of your child’s math troubles; just try to stay positive. For example, you could try saying something like: “I understand that math can be challenging sometimes, but it’s important to keep on trying to solve this. By working hard, you’ll get there”.
2. Identify Problem Areas
If you can do this on your own, great. Alternatively, it’s a good idea to also consult their teacher. Sometimes, just asking your child which areas are causing them trouble will do the job. But if they’re frustrated over a math problem, they’re likely to simply say: “All of it!”
Don’t accept vague answers and encourage them to be specific. This way, you’ll set targets for what you’re trying to achieve. For example, if the child is struggling with a math problem that involves division, they might understand that they’re supposed to multiply two numbers, but are unsure how to multiply two-digit numbers.
Whatever the specific challenge is, it’s advisable to try to:
- Rephrase the math problem – ask the child to use their own words to explain what the specific question is. To solve a math problem, they need to be able to understand what is being requested of them in the first place, as well as what information is being provided to them to help them out.
- Highlight key information – sometimes, a child will know how to solve a problem, but they get stuck if the math problem is too wordy. For example, maybe they know the answer to 3×7 but have difficulty understanding a math question such as “Sarah bought 3 candy boxes. Each of the boxes had 7 pieces of candy. How many pieces of candy did she buy in total?” Encourage the child to highlight key info in cases of wordy math problems.
- Visualize the math problem– this one should go without saying, especially when it comes to geometry problems. But, visualizing a math problem even beyond geometry can go a long way to help a child with a math concept. For example, consider drawing multiplication arrays with dots if the child struggles with multiplication.
Once you’ve identified the problem areas, you can move on to looking for any potential gaps, which brings us to our next paragraph – checking the basics.
3. Check the Basics
Math is a subject that builds on itself. In other words, later math concepts build on previous ones, so your child must already master the earlier concepts before proceeding to more advanced concepts. So, if they come across difficulties in a given area, make sure to identify whether they have the math foundation that is required for that area.
As with any other cumulative subject, if you don’t address the gaps, they tend to accumulate over time, which will make math even harder for the child. The kid will end up falling further and further behind their classmates.
For example, if your child is having issues learning addition, make sure that their counting skills are good. Can they count up to 100? Can they count down correctly? Do they find it easy to recognize a number of objects without having to count?
Alternatively, if your child is struggling with thinking of multiplication as repeated addition (i.e. 3 x 5 = 5 + 5 + 5), you may want to check if their grasp of addition is solid in the first place. Can they solve addition problems quickly? Are they comfortable with two-digit addition problems? You get the gist.
4. Make Abstract Math Concrete
Many children find it challenging to understand how an abstract equation is related to the real world. You can help your child grasp abstract math facts by providing real-world connections. Math is everywhere, so you won’t have trouble demonstrating math concepts in your surroundings. Use the examples below for inspiration.
A Trip to the Supermarket
If you’re trying to support your child with learning addition, it suffices to take them to the candy shop and have them help figure out how many candy sticks you’re buying. In addition, have them practice addition by giving them money to pay the bill for the sticks, under your supervision, of course.
Math in the Garden
A number of activities in the garden can help your child practice their math skills. Let’s say you want to teach your child about symmetry. Simply pick an apple from your garden and cut it in two to demonstrate symmetry in the real world.
Or, if you want to practice measurement. Next time you decide to plant seeds, ask your child to help you determine the exact spots where you can plant the seeds by having them measure the distance between the future seeds.
If your child is fond of cookies (and what child isn’t, right?), have them join you in the kitchen and bake cookies with you. Not only will you get an extra pair of hands, but they’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice addition. Try guiding your child in the process, with simple questions like “we added 2 eggs and we need to have 4 in total; how many more should we add?”
You can incorporate math even in something as tedious as doing the laundry. For instance, ask your child to help you with separating the colored clothes from the white and black clothes. Then add other categories such as summer clothes and winter clothes.
Practicing categorizing items will help them develop or further strengthen their analytical skills.
Road trips are a great way to use some math in everyday situations. So next time you’re traveling with your kid, encourage them to observe their surroundings. For example, practice shape recognition by looking at the road signs, wheels, etc.
You can also help them think mathematically by discussing the distance. You can encourage them to develop a sense of measurement by calculating how many miles you’ve passed and how much gas you might need for this distance.
5. Add Fun to It
As students often struggle with math, they may end up thinking the subject is boring. And let’s face it, drilling math facts and theorems is nobody’s idea of fun. So if you find yourself wondering “how to help my child with math at home?”, one of the most important things you can do is avoid turning your home into yet another boring classroom.
Instead, add a bit of fun! And what better way to add fun to math than to turn it into games? There’s a variety of games that you can use to make math more engaging for your child, and you can easily adapt these to different math concepts.
For instance, if your child is finding it hard to remember multiplication tables, why not create a twist on the popular bingo game and turn it into fun, bingo math? Or, you could also decide to combine movement and multiplication, and have your child go on a multiplication scavenger hunt? Check out this article for a complete list of fun math games to play at home.
Use Math Apps
Making math fun goes hand in hand with digital math games since most children are inseparable from their phones and iPads. And the best of all is that there are so many free math apps that you can use, among which:
- Prodigy Game – it allows kids to play games and use it for homework assessment projects. In this fantasy-based game, children compete against in-game characters, and they must answer math questions in order to win. The game also has tools for reporting on the child’s progress, so that the parent is able to see which areas they’re struggling with.
- Geoboard app – this app is great for learning diverse mathematical concepts for elementary and intermediate levels, such as perimeter, angles, area, and so on, by changing the position of bands around pegs.
- Dinosaur Math Tower Defense – this is a fast-paced game where the caveman and their dinosaurs are planning to annihilate the world as we know it. The child then plays the role of the last remaining soldier that can stop these cavemen from destroying civilization. To have a sufficient supply of their ammunition, the player is able to practice a number of math operations, from addition, subtraction, to multiplication and division.
- Vic the Viking – an engaging game that is based on the story of Vic the Viking. Through its captivating graphs and fun animations, your child will enjoy learning about the adventures of Vic, while practicing addition, subtraction, measures, coordinates, geometric shapes, and much more.
6. Promote Critical Thinking
If you see the child practicing hard but still getting nowhere, you want to make sure that they are not just doing rote memorization, but they actually understand the math concept at hand.
For instance, while drills can be useful for memorizing the multiplication tables, check if the child understands what multiplication is in the first place. Does the child understand that multiplication is simply repeated addition?
Give your child a math problem. For example, ask them to calculate how much is 3 x 63, Instead of simply telling you that the answer to the equation is 189, ask them to explain why they think this is the correct answer. Even if the answer is correct, always ask additional questions to have them explain their thinking process.
You’ll be sure to encourage critical thinking this way and avoid getting the right answer by chance. Instead, try to check if they know that 3 x 63 means 63+63+63.
7. Praise Your Child the Right Way
By now it’s well-documented that praising children for their math performance can boost their confidence in math, and even increase their perseverance to solve a certain task and their initiative to exceed expectations.
However, what many parents don’t know is that praising, if not done correctly, could also have a negative impact on their child. Here are some tips to keep in mind when praising your child:
- Avoid talent or intelligence-centered praise – this may come across as strange for many parents who love calling their children a ‘math whizz’, or giving them encouragement by simply saying ‘you’re so smart’, but it has been known that praising children this way can contribute to them shying away from taking on harder math challenges due to fear of failure and thus, disproving themselves as ‘the math whizz’.
- Practice effort-based praise – instead of praising ability, try praising the effort and persistence. For instance, you could say things like: ‘It’s great that you didn’t give up even when you got stuck. Way to go!’ or ‘I love that you analyzed your mistakes and learned from them. Every great mathematician learns from their mistakes!’
- Skip the superlatives – kids can tell when you’re not genuine. So avoid false praise when it’s not earned. For example, if they didn’t manage to properly understand a math theorem, don’t say something like ‘this sounds good to me, but…’. Instead tell them something like: ‘I see you’ve worked hard to understand this’. Kids can detect if you’re lying and false praise can make them distrust you.
8. Be Mindful of Math Anxiety
Sometimes, the problem area does not stem from a lack of understanding of a math theorem or operation but is linked to a specific type of anxiety known as math anxiety. Children with math anxiety will typically experience panic and helplessness when asked to solve a math problem.
This means that even though a child knows how to calculate the answer for multi-digit multiplication problems, for ex: 23 x 64 = 1472, they may get anxious under certain circumstances and be unable to calculate the answer.
For example, you’ve practiced at home and they get the answer correctly time and again. However, when given a multi-digit multiplication problem in the classroom, a child suffering from math anxiety might freeze and be unable to solve it.
Don’t just brush off math anxiety by saying stuff like “you’re overreacting, it’s nothing”. By understanding that math anxiety is real, you’re being empathetic toward your child and you’ll be much more likely to help them.
Math Anxiety Causes and Remedies:
While it’s difficult to pinpoint one single cause for math anxiety, some of the possible causes include:
- Fear of public embarrassment – negative emotions from the past can spur math anxiety. A case in point is a student who was mocked by their peers in class for getting an answer wrong or scolded by their math teacher. In such cases, the child might have felt publicly embarrassed and is now associating math with negative emotions, hence their math anxiety.
- Timed tests – timed tests are used in most mainstream schools nowadays, however, they are also known to be one of the major causes of math anxiety. The pressure that comes with having a strict deadline to complete a math test can easily result in forgetting a math formula that a child never struggles to remember under untimed conditions. To make matters worse, times tests impact grades and poor math grades further reinforce math anxiety.
- Teachers’ or parents’ attitudes toward math – this is something that we already discussed above. And it’s not only parents that do it, but teachers are often the culprit behind negative messaging. For example, sometimes a teacher might make an ‘innocent’ joke about girls being better at social studies or having poorer math skills than boys, which can contribute to the development of math anxiety among girls. Adopting the right attitude can go a long way to helping or preventing math anxiety in children.
Whatever the specific cause might be, if your child is suffering from math anxiety, you’ll need to employ certain interventions to address this condition. For example:
- Consider advising the child to write down math math-related worries and emotions before a math class or a math test, which has been shown to alleviate math anxiety in some children
- Consider employing breathing exercises before tests, which are useful for any type of anxiety, and can also be beneficial for math anxiety.
- Finally, if your child has experienced an excruciatingly embarrassing situation where they were mocked or scolded for their math skills, if talking about the situation with the child doesn’t seem to yield any results, you can also consider involving the school counselor or a licensed therapist.
9. Be on the Lookout for Learning Disabilities
Sometimes, a child’s problems with math might stem from a learning disability, such as dyscalculia, commonly referred to as ‘math dyslexia’. This is a learning disability that leads to difficulty in understanding or manipulating numbers, doing calculations, learning math facts, etc.
For example, a child with dyscalculia might exhibit the following symptoms in pre-school:
- difficulty with learning how to count
- difficulty connecting a number to a given set of objects (ex: they might find it tricky to associate the number 4 with four pencils or four oranges)
- difficulty with pattern recognition
Whereas in primary school, they might show the following symptoms:
- difficulty counting or doing operations with mental math (may still rely on finger-counting)
- difficulty with basic math facts (ex: struggles to recall the answer to)
- difficulty understanding the commutative property of operations (i.e. that 3+5 = 5+3)
- difficulty differentiating between the symbols or multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction
- difficulty keeping scores in games or sports activities
- difficulty understanding math language like ‘less than’ or ‘greater than’
- difficulty solving math problems
If your child has a learning disability of any kind, the sooner the condition is diagnosed, the better.
Helping your child with math is no easy feat, but overcoming the challenges is not impossible!
By adopting the above strategies, you’ll be sure to turn math from a subject of nightmares to a subject your child genuinely loves!
If you’re looking for more math resources to help your child, head over to our blog or check out our membership site. MathTeacherCoach offers courses that give you everything you need to support your kids in math, ranging from lesson plans, guided notes, bell work, assignments, exit quizzes, to interactive notebooks, and online activities.
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