Helping Your Student with Math

Here at Life Tools Tutoring, over half of the students that we work with are struggling in math.  The parents that call us are anxious and frustrated.  Many have attempted to work with their child at the kitchen table, only to have the session end in arguing or tears.  Some of our parents had negative math experiences when they were children, and others have labeled themselves ‘bad at math’ which effectively, in their minds, lets them off the hook. 

We can all agree that a certain level of math proficiency is essential in today’s world, regardless of your chosen profession.  Skills like being a wise shopper, understanding the real cost of loans, completing simple construction projects, etc. all require math knowledge.  In addition, many occupations use math every day, including engineering, accounting, insurance, finance and many positions in the medical field, to name a few.  As we mentioned in a previous article, math proficiency rates in the state of Wisconsin are hovering below the 30% rate.  Most of our kids are graduating high school without the requisite understanding of math to be successful.

So what can we, as parents, do to assist our students to become proficient in math and possibly even enjoy math?  For some parents, the first step is to stop and breathe.  Of all the dragons you will be required to slay as a parent, math class will not fall in the top ten; more importantly, God put you in charge of your child, so you have the skill sets and intellect required to guide your student to maximize his/her math potential.

That having been said, math curriculum, even at the youngest elementary school levels can be unique and unrecognizable in some cases.  Some school districts have adopted visual learning strategies to help young people see how numbers relate to real world scenarios and how to manipulate numbers in a variety of ways. The problem here is that many of us are not familiar with these new strategies; moreover, as homework has become a thing of the past for many schools, parents may be in the dark regarding how their students are being taught, and how they can help. 

Parents, we need to be proactive.  If the teacher is communicating well, outlining curriculum and providing ‘how to’ instructions for new math strategies, we to need fully engage with these tools.  We must take the time to learn these strategies and work with our students in the evenings to make sure they are understanding and keeping up.  If the written instructions are confusing, the internet will most likely have video explanations for you to follow.  (Check out the Life Tools Tutoring YouTube video to learn about ‘box multiplication’).  For teachers out there, actively engage your parents in the process; although it will require more effort in the short term, your students will find much more success utilizing this army of at-home educators.

Again, we must remember that education begins at home.  Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division flash cards are an excellent way to reinforce what your student is learning in the classroom.  Five minutes of practice in the evenings should be more than enough time to develop proficiency.  If your student is struggling with a particular concept, reach out to the teacher and ask for additional worksheets or practice problems that you can work through with your student.  Be sure to make this time together with your child relaxing and enjoyable; include snacks and don’t sweat it if some nights are more productive than others.  Make up real-world problems or questions that involve your child’s favorite cereal or use playing cards instead of flash cards.  As an aside, please also teach your young people about the value of coins – you might be surprised how little they know about them. 

As the middle school and high school years approach, parents become more and more intimidated with the idea of keeping up with their student’s math curriculum, much less assisting in the process.  We challenge you to step toward the problem; cast fear and/or laziness aside and do what needs doing.  Reach out to your student’s teacher to see what’s coming up in math class this month.  Borrow your own hard copy of the math textbook and self-teach if you need to.  “I was never good at math”, or “I don’t have the math gene” are comments that should not be verbalized, particularly in front of your student.  Although the internet is full of dark and dangerous spaces, the number of free math videos that are well-produced and easy to follow is simply staggering.  Or if the math is beyond your ability, search out a tutor (or a smart neighbor) to give your student a boost.

For those of you who are responsible for choosing math curriculum and textbooks for your school or district, please keep parents in mind.  As Life Tools tutors students from many different school districts, we can tell you that much of the math curriculum is confusing.  Moving forward, let’s try to find textbooks that teach the students how to work through a new concept and then provide four or five example problems to reinforce the concept.  The Socratic method (asking students questions until they come up with the right answer) is a great teaching technique for some subjects, but absolutely not for math.  Teachers, please provide digital slides from your lectures for students and parents to reference if needed.  When presenting a new concept, provide 20 or so problems on that concept for the student to work through so that they are able to lock down the strategy.  Mixing six or more math concepts on every homework assignment is confusing and demoralizing. 

We can get our students back on track with math and other subjects, but we as parents must step into the front lines.  Teachers are overwhelmed with challenges in the classroom, and they need our help.  Start today by asking your student what they are learning in math…and do it with a smile!