A lot of what’s written about preventing math anxiety in kids is directed at classroom teachers. There are suggestions for creating an optimistic and safe classroom where questions are valued and group work is encouraged. But parents don’t run the classroom. So what can we do at home to help our kids grow up confident in math?
Raising math-confident kids starts early, and strategies evolve as the child grows. All along, though, the basic parental messages are the same.
- Numbers are cool. Math is fascinating, and it can be beautiful.
- People like you can do math. It’s a matter of effort and practice.
- People who use math well have power.
- It’s your right to get a good math education—but you have to work at it, too.
- Understanding math will give you lots of choices in your life and career.
- People learn in different ways; different topics are hard or easy for different people. The key is to find out what works for you.
- Always try to understand.
But parental messages aren’t just about what we say. They’re about what we do day-to-day. So what can we do concretely to send these messages about math?
Preschool and early grades
In young children, play games or share activities that include counting, measuring, sorting and comparing. Count out and sort the silverware or clean socks. Bake together or make up a mud pie recipe. Talk about more, bigger, heavier, less, fewer, smaller, and lighter. Notice and name shapes. Play simple board games with dice, or strategy games like checkers. Guess how many mailboxes are on your street and then count them. The main point is to have fun, and once in a while to mention that the fun things you’re doing are all a kind of math.
As children learn to write numerals, encourage them to be artistic if they choose. Let them write numbers in different colors or decorate their pages. Doing so won’t be helping them learn mathematical concepts, but it may increase their emotional connection and good feelings about numbers.
In the library, seek out storybooks that feature math. A few examples are Anno’s Math Games, by Mitsumasa Anno; The Doorbell Rang, by Pat Hutchins; Measuring Penny by Loreen Leedy; and One Hundred Hungry Ants by Elinor Pinczes.
Elementary school: the challenges of homework and math facts
As students enter elementary school, more of their math education is moving out of your hands. You’ll start seeing homework, and you may not be sure how to help. Start by expressing interest. Can your child explain what she’s learning? Can he show you how to do a certain kind of problem? For word problems, ask the child to challenge you by making up a similar problem of her own. Reason it through out loud. See if she can catch you in a mistake. Doing this accomplishes two things. Thinking backward about how to set up a problem requires real understanding and helps the child see how math connects to the real world. And hearing you reason, stumble, make mistakes and correct yourself helps the child see that mistakes are part of learning.
One big stumbling block for elementary school kids is mastering their math facts: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. This is a tricky one. Many parents blame school curriculum if their kids have trouble mastering the multiplication tables, but the truth is that most kids struggle with multiplication no matter what math books they use. So how do we get our kids to practice to the point of fluency without convincing them that math is drudgery?
The key is to make practice a game. Multiplication bingo, computer games, rap songs--- do whatever it takes. A child who is fluent in basic facts has a much easier time of it in more complex mathematics.
When your child brings home a math test, don’t focus on the grade he received. Instead, look it over and comment on how much he’s learned. For missed questions, ask, “Do you understand what you did wrong?” Ask him to give an example of a similar problem and how he would solve it. Comment on how great it is that his positive attitude is helping him learn from mistakes
Middle School and Beyond
Older kids may not want you interfering in their homework. But you still have important messages to convey. Probably the most important (and one of the hardest to get across) is that the point of homework is not to rush through it as fast as possible. The point of homework is to understand the problems and the underlying mathematics. Kids should ask themselves what they’re trying to learn and check on whether they feel confident they have learned it. They should continue to make up questions for themselves. Encourage them to be proactive about asking questions of the teachers and other students. Tell them that questions show that they’re paying attention and thinking hard.
If your child is anxious about tests, strong preparation is key. Doing a little bit of review every day is more efficient than cramming on the last day before a test. Here the old trick of making up problems will come to your child’s aid. Study sessions with friends who ask each other questions are especially useful. We learn and retain more by actively coming up with questions and solutions than by reviewing old notes.
Encourage your child to knock off from studying early on the night before an exam. Taking a break can help her relax, but it also ingrains the idea, important for a healthy life in high school and college, that studying is something you pace over time.
If test anxiety remains a problem, your child should learn some relaxation techniques. Deep breathing exercises, visualizing success or a sunny beach, or silently repeating a phrase such as, “I am prepared and math makes sense to me” can all be helpful.
Finally, your child will be less anxious if he knows that no matter how he does on the test, you’ll still be interested, sympathetic, and supportive. Sure, the test is important, but bonds to parents are even more important. The math will always still be out there, ready to be learned.