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How To Help Kids With Their Math Homework When You Suck at Numbers

It's simple: Don't solve the problems for them, help them find their mistakes.

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The following story was submitted by a Fatherly reader. Opinions expressed in the story do not reflect the opinions of Fatherly as a publication. The fact that we’re printing the story does, however, reflect a belief that it is an interesting and worthwhile read.

Math has a pretty bad reputation. When I tell people that I am a math teacher, the person’s face almost immediately changes. Either they struggled with the subject in school or have experienced some form of “math trauma” in a past life. As a result, many parents struggle with helping their child learn math, especially with the recent changes to how the subject is taught in schools. Here is my advice for those parents.

Get into the proper mindset

Math skills can be particularly tough for students because of the role mistakes play in the learning process. Children typically make more mistakes in math than any other subject, but that’s not a bad thing! Brain research has proven that making mistakes helps the brain grow, and learning from those mistakes can be extremely positive for young people.

With that in mind, parents should play the role of cheerleader and coach when their kids make mistakes. A child’s perception of their own abilities, or their mindset, has a huge effect on their performance in school. We need to boost our children’s self-efficacy by letting them know that it is okay to fail and try again. Math provides ample opportunity to reinforce those positive messages about overcoming obstacles.

Understand that there are no “Math People”

Despite popular belief, people who are talented in math are not born that way. We all have the same ability to learn. What separates them and other successful people, according to studies, is not quitting when faced with obstacles; that’s a defining characteristic of high achievement.

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When school-aged children interact with peers and adults, they are like social sponges. During this developmental stage, the messages that we send to our children about school and learning are extremely important. Telling your child “I was never a math person” gives them the message that it is okay to give up on something when it becomes difficult. If you don’t understand ⏤ or can’t immediately help your child with their math homework ⏤ at least show excitement in having the opportunity to learn alongside them while you work as a team to overcome a challenge together.

Don’t solve the problems for them, help them find their mistakes

Some parents (and teachers) have the tendency to help children a little too much with their school work, especially with math. Don’t be one of them. Make yourself available to your child while they do their homework, but instead of helping them solve a particular problem, help them find their own mistakes. Essentially, you want to help them help themselves by providing different strategies on how to approach problems rather than doing the problem for them. As a parent, you shouldn’t be expected to know the ins and outs of all K-12 curriculum, but you can play a role in teaching your child how to learn.

Remember that your way isn’t the only way

Research has proven time and again that everyone learns differently. There is no average way of learning, and there is no average or normal learner. And while you may have learned how to complete a math problem in a specific way as a student, a lot has changed in math education in recent years. Just because the new way of teaching math is different, doesn’t mean it is wrong.

It’s always nice to provide learners with multiple strategies for solving problems. Don’t shy away from sharing the way you learned math when growing up, but celebrate other problem-solving formulas as well. Parents and teachers aren’t so much helping students learn math as they are helping the child’s brain become more agile and flexible when faced with challenges. Stop thinking of math as a memorization subject, and start thinking of it as a means for us to make sense of the complex world around us.

Raymond Steinmetz is a K-8 Math Instructional Coach and father of two living in Warren, Rhode Island. He writes about the integration of technology and teaching at blendedlearningmath.com, is a guest blogger at Education Post, and contributes a regular column to eschoolnews.com.