“Anyone here good at geometry? I suck, and my kid needs help. Help!”
“Common Core maths — I need more wine for this.”
“Looking at these rational numbers is making me very irrational!”
All over Facebook, I see parents agonising — and commiserating — over their kids’ homework, particularly their maths homework. I’m not there yet, as my daughter is only four, but I’ve been dreading this stage — I’ve already called “Not it!” to my husband on the decision of who will help her with all things mathematical. (I’ll instead claim English and, hmm, maybe pottery.)
But it may be time to shift my attitude. It turns out that parents’ fear of maths can be passed along to our kids without us realising it. Many adults have had a point (or several) in their lives when they declared themselves “not a maths person”, and that’s understandable. Education experts say the way students have traditionally been trained in maths — with timed tests, long lists of rules to memorise, and even the assumption that 100 per cent is the ideal score — is not only stress-inducing, but ineffective. Some studies show that 10 to 20 per cent of adults have high maths anxiety.
Yet maths is obviously important — it’s a gatekeeper to careers in science, medicine, technology and engineering. The good news is that according to Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University and the CEO of the maths education resource youcubed, any kid can achieve at the highest levels in maths at school if they are given the opportunities.
Here’s how to support your maths-learning child when you have maths anxiety.
Don’t Empathise (Aloud) If Your Kid Says He or She Is Bad at Maths
“Never say to your child, ‘I was bad at maths, too,'” Boaler tells me. “Instead, say, ‘The new brain science tells us that anyone’s brain can grow and change, and you can develop new maths pathways to learn anything.'”
Mums have a particularly unique challenge. Researchers have found that as soon as mothers shared with their daughters that they dislike maths or that they are bad at it, their daughters’ achievement went down.
Don’t Tell Kids They’re Wrong as They’re Working Out Problems
Instead, Boaler says, find the logic in their thinking. “For example, if your child multiplies 3 by 4 and gets 7, say, ‘Oh I see what you are thinking, you are using what you know about addition to add 3 and 4, when we multiply we have 4 groups of 3…’,” she writes on her website.
Do Play Maths Games and Puzzles
Boaler says maths games, puzzles and apps help kids “develop number sense, which is critically important”. Here’s a great list to start with.
Do Create a Maths-Positive Environment at Home
Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, tells the New York Times that maths-anxious parents can help their children home by modelling “maths behaviour”:
The game plan: Tell your child, “‘You have your maths homework, and I have mine,'” he said, and show them whenever you “count your change, calculate when dinner will be ready, look at prices in a grocery store.”
Do Help a Kid Who’s Stuck By Asking Engaging Questions
If you don’t know how to solve a maths problem, asking questions can help both of you make sense of it.
The Mathematics Education Collaboratives gives some questions to begin with.
What if your child comes home with a maths problem and says, “I don’t get it!”
Your job is to think of questions that will engage him or her in the problem:
- What is the problem about? Tell me in your own words.
- What did you do in class to get started?
- Can you make a diagram or draw a sketch?
- What assumptions are you making?
- How do you know you are solving the right problem?
- Could there be any missing or extra information?
- Can you solve a simpler version of the problem?