Math at Home: Tips for Parents and Caregivers

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More than six weeks into the era of social distancing, many parents and caregivers across the country are adapting to the challenges of teaching at home. For some, mathematics remains particularly difficult – especially for those with anxiety or aversion to math due to their own experiences in school.

But with a little patience, understanding and cooperation, learning math at home can be a positive experience for everyone, said Robert Q. Berry, a professor of mathematics education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development. Berry also served as the 2019-20 president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the world’s largest organization for professional math teachers.

“Caregivers and teachers all want the same thing: for students to thrive,” he said. “When students thrive mathematically, they perform well in school and they have positive attitudes toward math. Caregivers and teachers can work together to help students become interested in knowing and doing mathematics.”

The following recommendations and resources are adapted from a chapter that Berry and colleagues wrote for the National Association of School Psychologists’ “Helping Handouts: Supporting Students at Home and at School.”

Think Beyond the Right Answer

It’s important for caregivers to understand that mathematics is about more than getting the right answer.

“Doing mathematics also involves choosing a method to solve the problem, explaining why that solution makes sense, finding patterns, and justifying why the pattern could be true among similar types of problems,” he said.

In other words, it’s the problem-solving process that matters most. Caregivers can support their students’ learning, Berry said, by helping them remember that mistakes and struggles are a normal, important part of learning – and by keeping the focus on why a certain strategy makes sense.

Learn About the School’s Approach to Mathematics

Caregivers should be aware that their students’ work might look different from what they remember doing in school, Berry said. “Supporting students involves understanding what they are being asked to do. Before deciding if you agree or disagree with the teacher’s or school’s approach, it is worth trying to understand the intentions of the mathematics program at the school.”

If you’re hoping to better understand your school’s approach, Berry suggests seeking out information from your state’s department of education. You can also research the course materials, as some textbooks offer complementary guides for parents. Finally, Berry suggests looking to national organizations, like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, for additional guidance. 

Communicate Openly and Cooperatively With Teachers

Students have the best chance of success when teachers and caregivers are on the same team. Develop a sustainable communication plan that works for everyone involved, so you have an established way to discuss your student’s current strengths and opportunities for growth.

When communicating with teachers, Berry suggests keeping a narrow focus. “Focus on targeted topics in mathematics, in contrast to mathematics performance generally,” he said. “Learn about the big ideas taught at each grade level and ask about how your child is making sense of each of those ideas.” 

Support Your Student (But Don’t Do the Work for Them)

It can be tempting for well-meaning caregivers to step in when their student struggles – but for students to learn, they need to be the ones doing the thinking. “This means resisting telling your student how you would solve the problem,” Berry said. “Instead, pose questions that ask students to explain their mathematical thinking to you.”

For example, you might say, “Walk me through what you’ve done so far.” Or, Berry suggests asking your student to try drawing a picture or diagram to show what’s happening in the problem.

Bring Math Into Everyday Tasks

“Model that mathematics is not for school alone, but we all do mathematics as a part of our everyday lives,” Berry said.

For example, you might talk about the calculations that you use while doing daily tasks like cooking or reviewing the family budget. Depending on your student’s age, you could discuss the shapes of signs, perspective in art, patterns in architecture, and more.

Games can also provide positive and fun learning opportunities. Chutes and Ladders can help young children learn about sequencing numbers, while Yahtzee teaches lessons about probability. When choosing computer games or apps, Berry suggests avoiding options that put time pressure on students, and instead choosing games that promote understanding.

Promote Positive Attitudes About Math

If your student is frustrated, explain that a wrong answer is not a failure, but an opportunity to learn. Berry suggests providing specific praise about how they solved a problem or explained their thinking. It’s also helpful to point out how your student has grown through hard work and perseverance.

“Let your child know that everyone struggles when learning something new,” he said. “Share that you believe in them, encourage them not to give up, and let them know that you know they can succeed.”

Helpful Resources

  • TouchCounts is an exploratory app for young children, structured as a play space.
  • Learn Zillion hosts online video tutorials that provide explanations of how to solve problems at a range of grade levels.
  • Khan Academy also offers a large range of free online tutorials and lessons.
  • This document from the U.S. Department of Education highlights mathematics games to play with children (see pages 6-58).
  • Figure This! Family Corner includes questions for caregivers to ask teachers, as well as suggestions for questions to ask students that allow them to do the mathematical thinking themselves.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics created a video series for parents about mathematics learning in the era of Common Core mathematics.

Media Contact

Laura Hoxworth

School of Education and Human Development