Has your child ever come home from school and told you they are bad at math?
Many children are growing up believing they can’t do it, and once that belief becomes ingrained, it’s hard to get past it. The easy answer is to tell your child that it doesn’t matter because nobody uses math skills once they’ve left school, and that you weren’t particularly good at it either. Unfortunately, that doesn’t cut it. Math does matter, and you do use it when you’ve left school, though you may not realize it.
Research by Dr. Tanya Evans of Stanford University suggests that those with a better aptitude at math have more connections in their brains, are better problem solvers, have a higher level of analytical skills and greater visual attention. In addition, we use math to tell the time, to work out bus timetables, to weigh and measure, to work out change, or how to divide a bill. We use math all the time, in every area of our life. Yet the most recent OECD (Office for Economic Cooperation and Development) study into student attainment, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), has the UK ranked 20th in the world for mathematical performance and the USA ranked 36th.
Is there anything that you, as a parent, can do to help your child become more confident with math? There’s plenty you can do, and you don’t have to be Einstein to work alongside your children to do this.
1. Start with young children by counting everything
A lot of math is abstract, so anchoring the idea of numbers to quantity or actual objects is important; this is called 1:1 correspondence. Rather than learning to count by rote, counting objects, such as steps, eggs, fingers, or toys, will ensure that the numbers have meaning. They will know the connection between the number symbol, the language, and the quantity.
2. Use real objects for calculations
When you are working with calculations, use real objects. “I had twenty toy cars but gave you four. How many are left?” Show that you can count them again, or you can count back the four from twenty. It’s the same with fractions – get a cake or a chocolate bar and chop it up. Anchoring math in reality helps children understand what is happening to their calculations or fractions and prepares them to move on to abstract images or numerical representations.
3. Keep bringing older kids back to real life
As your child gets older and moves on to bigger calculations, keep bringing them back to real life as much as possible. You can relate it to food or money — preferably something they can visualize. Even though they have moved away from concrete objects that they can manipulate and count, it will help them to be able to visualize those things to support their understanding of the calculations they are learning. Having a context will also help give them a sense check to make sure their answer makes sense.
4. Don’t stick to just one calculation method
Look at a question together to decide on the best method. Is there an easy way to do this in our head? For example, 19,998 + 3999. Many children see large numbers and jump to the formal column method that they’ve been taught even though this is time-consuming and involves exchange, with many opportunities for an error. Take a second look at the numbers, however, and we can see that 20,000 + 4,000 – 3 would be a much easier way to do it. Get a random selection of calculations and look at the different ways we could solve them — what are the best ways?
5. Get them involved in everyday learning opportunities
Get them involved in real-life math all around you every day — from counting the money in your purse, buying things and getting change, playing games that need scoring, counting spaces on board games, measuring in cookery and baking, looking at train timetables, working out how long something will take, to using maps relating to coordinates. Get them to help you measure for that new pair of curtains or measure the chest of drawers to see if it will fit in the new spot. These are everyday learning opportunities that are so much more valuable than the worksheet you can download off the internet.
Most importantly, through all of this, is to keep math fun. Make solving mathematical problems an adventure of discovery where it is okay to make a mistake, as long as you learn from it. Enjoy engaging in math problems together.