Helping your child in math

What can I do as a parent to help my child in math? This is the question I've been asked ever since I started teaching math 20 years ago. As a parent, I've pondered the question myself. And I've come up with some answers that rest on the fundamental assumption that a parent can make a difference in a child's attitude toward mathematics. So what can you do?

Preschool: If you have a preschool child, read to him. Read him stories, newspapers, cookbooks, but read to him every day. Read him things that have numbers in them, so he'll learn early that numbers are part of everyday life.

Talk to your children. Ask questions. Play number games with them. Is Todd taller than Ellen? Would you rather have two nickels or two dimes? Is the orange block bigger than the red block? Is it longer, heavier, or thicker? Is this a triangle, a circle, or a square?

Use your child's surroundings to generate questions. How many feet, socks, or brothers do you have? How many cookies do you have? How many do I have? If you had five cookies and you gave your sister two, how many would you have left? Many children enjoy the cookie questions, and they like them even better when allowed to eat a cookie or two.

When your child learns the alphabet, make sure she learns the numerals as well. Continue reading to your child even after she can read. Encourage her to read with you and to you. Can she read numerals as well as words?

Elementary school: Once your child starts school, teaching math becomes a shared responsibility between you and the teacher. Keep abreast of the progress your child is making by checking the homework before and after the teacher grades it.

Does your child like mathematics as well now as when he started school? Does the teacher like mathematics? Does the teacher spend enough time on it? Is homework assigned and graded on a daily basis? What page was the homework on yesterday? What page is it on today?

Math textbooks are generally well done. Like math itself, the books tend to be sequential. It is difficult to comprehend the material on page 150 without a good understanding of what is on the first 149 pages. If your child misses class for any extended period of time, he may fall behind and remain there for the rest of the year or longer.

Textbooks do have review exercises. In fact, the first few chapters of a math book may be nothing more than review.

What is learned at school can be reinforced at home. Let your child help you measure in the kitchen, workshop, or sewing room. Make him or her chief scorekeeper for dominoes, table tennis, or bowling. On trips, designate your elementary school student as copilot in charge of keeping up with distance traveled and estimated time of arrival. Everyone needs an assistant money-changer, grocery shopper, or bargain hunter.

Junior high: The mathematics found in the junior high curriculum is the mathematics your child will need throughout life. It includes a study of area, volume, interest rates, percentages, fractions, decimals, and the beginnings of algebra. Yet at this age students have other important but competing interests. Perhaps the main task of the parent is to help the student maintain a balance between his studies and soccer, band, television, Pac-Man, and a budding social life. Does your child understand that mathematics is a skill like playing the piano or shooting free throws, and must be practiced regularly?

At the junior high level, parents should do most of their coaching from the sidelines. Soon the subject matter will become so advanced that the parent may not feel comfortable tutoring. It's good, on occasion, to let the student explain a problem or a procedure to the parent. In this way, the parent gets firsthand information about the child's progress and shows an interest in his study. The student may learn through his own explanation or find he or she needs more study.

If your child cannot do or explain how to do most of his homework problems, a parent-teacher conference is in order. You must avoid being overly sympathetic to a student's difficulty, admitting that neither you nor anyone else in the family was ever good in mathematics. Don't brag about your poor math background unless you really want your offspring to grow up the same way.

What a child learns at school can still be reinforced at home. He or she can halve or double recipes, calculate miles per gallon, read road maps, figure the square footage of the house or the amount of paint needed to paint the house. If you're fortunate, your teen-ager will apply both the mathematics and the paint.

High school: By the time your son or daughter reaches high school, the study of mathematics will largely be between student and teacher. Yet as a parent you will still be one of the most trusted advisers. Advise your children to take as much math as possible, and to take math each year in high school. Advise them to take math even if it is difficult and even if they make poorer grades in math than in other subjects. They can always forget what they don't need. But learning will never be any easier.

Calculators and computers: Should you buy your adolescent a calculator? Yes, if the calculator is to be a supplement to but not a replacement for the student's own ability. Yes, if the student needs it for square roots, logarithms , or trigonometry and if the teacher allows the student to use the calculator in class. Yes, if the student needs to work practice problems and have immediate feedback from a pre-programmed calculator. No, if the calculator is expected to do the student's homework or improve his skills or his grade.

As a general rule, the better the student, the more benefits are derived from a calculator or computer. Learning to program a computer or sophisticated calculator is an asset to almost anyone.

Problems: What can you do if your son or daughter is in trouble in a math class? The best choices are supervised study or a tutor.

Whatever your choice, it must be made before the student is in desperate trouble, and it must be carried out on a daily schedule, not just before tests. A weak student must start the homework as soon after class as possible while he still remembers what the teacher has shown him.

Learning mathematics can be difficult and frustrating, but so can learning to tie a shoelace. How did you help your child learn that? Your patience and persistence may still be required. Don't let your children leave home with their mathematical shoelaces untied.

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