I’m Helping My Child Learn Math.. Yikes!


When looking at your child’s math homework, do you find yourself anxiously trying to puzzle out why there are directions to draw boxes around numbers, explain the thinking around the answer or, worst of all – so many word problems? Where is the page of multiplication facts or the long division worksheet you remember? Helping your child with math homework can be stressful for parents, and now that parents are assuming more of the teacher’s role than ever, this anxiety and frustration have grown stronger than ever.

As a mathematics education, math coach and K-12 educator, I am often asked by family members and friends why their children’s math homework looks so different from what they remember. I often here people ask or say, “is this that new math?,”  “why are they teaching  math to make math more complicated?” and  “why can’t students  just learn the rules like I did.. I didn’t understand it but I did fine.”  Parents worry their children are falling behind and feel powerless to help.

Why All the Changes?

It’s relieving to know that there is no “new math.”  Math, itself, has not changed.  The difference mathematics is taught today with drawings and hands-on materials. They help learners understand concepts on the way to practicing them and remembering the rules. When we grasp the overall concept of what we are doing, we remember how to apply it and makes sense of it in everyday situations, For example,  it’s difficult to play a card game if one doesn’t understand what the goal is and why a play works in your favor or how to play basketball if you don’t know how and why the referee calls a foul on you and how that affects the game or how to manage credit cards if you don’t understand how they are billed or why the balance is correct or not.

Another shift in teaching mathematics is that concepts are connected to relevancy in everyday life. That is, we can use addition in problems about our collecting things for a sale or numbers of students in school and percent by building graphs of students’ favorite foods or books. What’s real is remembered too.  Some of us did learn math that way but the majority of us learned rules and procedures before or if ever math made any sense. 

You Know More Than You Think

The good news is you already know what you need to know to help. The key is to understand what is being asked of your math student and why it’s important. Students aren’t learning math the same way perhaps many of us did but the mathematics itself is exactly the same. Here’s how to start.

You don’t have to be a mathematician, teacher or professional tutor – you just need to support your children’s work with following the kinds of examples you see in their work. The goal of learning mathematics is to solve problems, not just to find answers with memorized rules that are not understood. The basics of helping with math are:

  1. It’s very important to refrain from telling your student that you and other family members, perhaps, are not “math people” There is no “math gene.” Mathematics success is a result of sense making, time and effort.’
  1. Drawing boxes and pictures to represent quantities and/or using materials such as cut up paper or real items to measure leads to understanding.
  2. Read and write math word problems and make up some of your own with daily life

examples. Ask about counting money, shapes seen in highway signs, shopping for groceries and measuring drawer space to keep interest, logical thinking and word problems alive.

Most of all, enjoy working with your child and know that there are many ways to think about math… and, most importantly, to help your child learn.