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How to Help Your Kid If They're Struggling in Math

Their homework may be over your head, but there are tips to survive this dreaded subject.


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Math used to be simple. Hard, but simple with an answer that was elegant, accessible and always the same as long you knew your formulas and followed the rules. Now it’s a lot more like a science class with a dose of language arts thrown in, thanks to complex step-by-step problems that require an interpreter.

Math education has evolved from a ton of memorization to fostering a deeper grasp of underlying concepts—which is great, but also confusing as heck for parents trying to help their math-challenged kids. And don’t even try to get involved with your middle and upper graders’ math homework—you probably couldn’t find X even if you used a time machine to go back to your high school days. Between newfangled approaches and long-lost aptitude, what’s a parent to do when the numbers (and grades) aren’t quite adding up? Here are a few ideas for starters:

FOR EVERYONE

Remind kids that they can do it.

“It’s too hard. I’m not smart enough.” To kids and adults, math can seem like a secret code. Stanford professor Jo Boaler, author of Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching and faculty director of youcubed.com, calls BS on that sort of thinking—and so should you. “You can learn math [on] any level you want,” Boaler says. “When you struggle with ideas, that’s when your brain is growing.” Encourage your kids to take things step by step, and immediately shut down attempts to psych themselves out.

Ask your child’s teacher for help.

Ideally, your child should be the first one to approach his or her teacher—help is often available before or after school or by appointment. But if that’s not happening, don’t be shy about tipping the teacher off to problems as soon as you notice them. A quick email or note will do it. “I’ve never met a teacher that said, ‘No, I won’t help your child.’ You just have to ask,” says Jennie Baslaw, a math and science specialist currently teaching third graders at Lyndhurst Memorial Campus.

Do your own research.

Not sure how your child is supposed to tackle a specific problem? Google it. There’s probably a video of someone doing that exact thing, plus plenty of apps and websites to help. “Resources like Khan Academy and Ten Marks are often free and aligned with the content students are seeing in class,” says Jameel Misbahuddin, STEM supervisor for Columbia High School in Maplewood.

Don’t stress about the PARCC.

“There’s always been standardized testing,” says Baslaw, noting that the PARCC is meant to gauge student progress and help teachers figure out which kids need extra help—not crush your child’s soul. So don’t opt out, she recommends. Getting comfortable with testing under pressure while the stakes are low can only benefit her down the road. By high school, most students (with few exceptions) must pass the PARCC to graduate.

ELEMENTARY

Work on what you know.

You know the sum is 8, yet the correct answer resembles hieroglyphics. Don’t be intimidated. “It’s still math—it’s just presented in a different way,” says Baslaw. “For example, a bar model is just a visual representation of a word problem. But it’s still a word problem. Parents get hung up on the strategies,” she says. If the way the problem is expressed is confusing, focus on the old school number work and let teachers worry about strategy and execution.

Ask your child to show YOU what to do.

Have your child walk you through a problem complete with the diagrams, graphs and models, required for full credit. This will give you a clearer sense of what’s being asked. It’s a little embarrassing, but you wouldn’t be the first parent to ask a 7-year-old how to regroup by 10s and 1s.

Master the basics at home.

Immersed in core concepts and strategies, teachers don’t have time to focus on math fact fluency. Yet, kids can’t focus on deeper learning if they’re still adding numbers on their fingers. “It still comes down to memorization,” says Baslaw. So break out the flash cards and quiz your kids ’til facts are second nature. A quick recall of common equations makes it easier for teachers (and you) to pinpoint problems and kids to make the most of timed tests.

Get physical.

Using hands-on materials enhances learning. “If I give kids something physical, they get it so much more [easily],” says Baslaw, who recommends trying the CPA approach (Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract) at home, especially the C which means manipulating anything from blocks to straws as a way of kinetically driving home concepts. Even older elementary students can benefit from hands-on learning before moving onto to representative and numbers-only strategies.

TWEENS AND TEENS

Carve out a quiet area to study.

Tweens and teens need a quiet study space to focus, unbothered by texts, an addictive Instagram feed, Call of Duty and other diversions. While some kids prefer the white noise of working at the kitchen table (which may be fine for little ones), older kids need a quiet, screen-free study area that’s comfortable, personalized,  stocked with must-have supplies and free from distractions.

Keep on top of their tests…

Teens often underestimate how much time they need to properly study for exams. “It’s rare that teachers give tests [or] quizzes without advanced notice and review sheets,” says Misbahuddin. “If parents know there’s a test coming up, which is pretty easy to do now thanks to class websites, they can ensure their child takes the steps to prepare.”

…And make sure they study the right way.

Starting to study the night before a major test is obviously the wrong strategy, but what works? Instead of simply re-reading review sheets, Misbahuddin encourages students to redo practice problems from scratch, first with the answers nearby and then without help. Encourage kids to do extra practice problems featured in their textbook. (It’s fine—they’re already cranky anyway.)

Focus on fractions.

Like memorizing number facts in the lower grades, intuitively understanding fractional relationships helps older kids and tweens master more complicated concepts. To boost partial number prowess, Dan Battey, associate professor of mathematics education at the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, recommends parents encourage kids to count fractions by denominator (ie: 1/8, 2/8, 3/8, 4/8...) and look for equivalence (ie: 2/8 is also 1/4). “This is essentially number sense work for fractions, just as we would work on whole numbers for younger grades when counting and talk about place value,” says Battey.

Turn it over to tutors.

If all else fails, hand your child off to an expert. “Math is currently a gatekeeper, not just to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers, but college and careers in general,” says Battey. “To get into a good undergraduate program, math will impact their access.” Even would-be artists and authors need to pass the subject, so if your child simply isn’t getting it, invest in a tutor who does.

Try these resources with your kids:

Jennifer Kantor is a parenting writer who lives in Maplewood with her husband and two kids.

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