Turn Math Homework Tears into Cheers
By Christina Vercelletto

Turn Math Homework Tears into Cheers

Education Advice & Tips  

Math homework: All kids get it, and some kids struggle through the Common Core State Standards and "new math". We spoke to area experts for the best tips to help you help your kids with math homework.

“I can’t do my math homework.”

“I’m stupid in math.”

Sound familiar? Kids are voicing these complaints frequently these days. And it’s no coincidence. With the nation’s schools increasing the rigor of math education through Common Core State Standards and related programs that emphasize STEM subjects, today’s math is no cakewalk.

And if you have an older child, you may have discovered an additional challenge. This stuff is hard even for you! Much of it is unfamiliar territory to parents who wonder what happened to good old borrowing, what the heck a manipulative is, and what’s with this estimating business?

But even if you were less than stellar at math in your school days, there are simple things you can do to create the atmosphere your child needs for understanding math, excelling at it in the long run, and (joy!) finishing homework with ease. Here, from top local experts, are the best things you can possibly do to make all that happen.

Be Positive About Math

You won’t get very far if you’re not upbeat about the subject, especially as your child approaches the upper-elementary grades, when math homework can take up a major chunk of time. In fourth grade, math homework becomes more complex—covering geometric figures, decimals, fractions, and percentages—and commonly takes 20-30 minutes, says Raymond J. Huntington, Ph.D., co-founder of Huntington Learning Center.

Resist the temptation to make your child feel better about having to work hard on his homework. Well-meaning parents often say things like, I was never any good at math, either, or Your dad is the only one who got the math gene in this house! “Saying those types of things gives children an excuse to be less willing to help themselves,” says Robert Bernstein, owner of Mathnasium of Bay Ridge.

Remembering that a child will model the attitudes of the adults around him, especially yours, make an effort to stay positive about math, agrees Raj Valli, founder of Tabtor Math Learning Program (tabtor.com). If your child is dragging his feet on starting his math homework, say things like, I think math is a great subject, or Math is cool because you can use it every day. “If your child hears these positive sentiments often enough, he will begin to feel the same way,” Valli insists. And that can’t help but cut down on homework procrastination.

RELATED: Help Your Child with Multiplication

Read Your Kid's Math Book

When your child receives his textbook in September, be the first to use it. “I know that sounds like a natural alternative to a sleeping pill, but stay with me!” says Jennifer Brower, a seventh-grade teacher in Mount Sinai. “This time in the beginning will pay tenfold throughout the year.” As you look through each chapter, look for real-world applications of the topics being covered. That will prep you to be able to answer the infamous kid question, When am I ever going to use this? “You may also find it sparks your interest. We use many mathematical concepts in our daily lives without even realizing it,” Brower explains.  

Brower suggests staying at least a week ahead of your child in the textbook. “Read the example problems and, most importantly, look at the demonstrations of solutions.” This will help squelch the urge to show your child how you did it when you were a kid, therefore making it easier for her to develop the techniques she needs to succeed by today’s standards.

RELATED: Help Your Child with Word Problems

Talk in Tens

If you have a preschooler or kindergartener just learning to work with numbers, try “ten speak.” For example, a carton of eggs has “ten and two” eggs (or “ten and eight” if you have the larger size). There are “six tens” minutes in an hour. This serves as useful scaffolding, helpful for building understanding even if we must remove it later: thus, after “ten and nine” comes “ten and ten,” which readily becomes “two tens,” says Jeff Suzuki, Ph.D., a mathematics professor at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and dad of two middle-schoolers. Many experts feel this makes it easier for young kids to learn, and builds in groundwork for higher-level math.

Make Math Part of Daily Conversation

Valli recommends looking for ways to work math into your daily activities with your child. For example, if your early-elementary child is with you at the grocery store, you might ask her, How many cookies do you think are in that package? and then, How did you come up with that answer? Most likely, your child will say something about the size of the package and how big cookies are. “Viola! Now she’s thinking about numbers as not just items in a number line, but as things that are related to shape, volume, and other spatial aspects,” says Valli. Even if she doesn’t guess correctly—and odds are she won’t—it doesn’t matter. She’s learning to think visually about math, a key concept for math success in higher grades. 

If your kid is in an upper-elementary grade, try challenging him to guess how many slices are in a loaf of bread you’re buying. You might talk about how thick he thinks each slice measures, how long the loaf of bread is, and the relationship between the two. You can help your child come up with his best estimate, and look forward to going home and finding out how close he was.

Looking for other examples? Try cooking with your child to teach measurements, going on a backyard scavenger hunt looking for shapes, figuring out averages and winning percentages for favorite athletes and teams, and calculating which size or brand of cereal gives you the most for your money. What you choose will depend on the age of your child, but all of these are creative ways to make math seem relevant in kids’ every day lives, says Nicole Welge, a first-grade teacher in Yonkers. “That’s my biggest piece of advice. Show math to be what it is at its most basic level—puzzles, brain teasers, mysteries, and riddles that you need to solve.”

Have Older Siblings Help with Homework

If your struggling child has an older sibling with a can-do attitude toward math, put her to work, suggests Bernstein. Your child may be more eager to tackle his multiplication tables with a sibling he looks up to at his side. Another plus: Big bro or sis will have a fresher memory of the work than you do. Does the assistant need a bit of an incentive? “The older sibling can earn extra allowance by tutoring. This can teach the older sibling responsibility, so it’s a win-win,” Welge says.

RELATED: Find Tutors in Your Area

Ask Teachers for Help

Parents are way too hesitant to ask teachers for help understanding their child’s homework, said the experts we spoke to. Yet that is the easiest and most effective way to help your child. “No teacher in her right mind would deny you a request that helps her student and makes her job easier,” says Brower. That help may include sending home manipulatives (after explaining what they are!), giving you a list of good websites with relevant math games, or for younger kids especially, suggesting songs and rhymes that help concepts click, explains Welge.

Teachers often hear from parents who want to show their child how to do math the way they learned it. “Parents will say it seems easier, and isn’t just getting the right answer the point?” Welge says. Well, yes and no. One of the main tenets of Common Core math at all levels is understanding—really understanding—the process. That allows kids to move seamlessly to the next level. “You ultimately are going to be making it harder for your child by teaching him your way,” Welge says. At test time, kids are going to be expected to write out how they arrived at the answer, in detail, and your way is not what the teacher will be able to grade on. Again, ask your teacher to show you how to do it the new way. Many schools are holding refresher math classes for parents for just this reason.

With hard work and the right attitude, math homework doesn’t have to be a battlefield or source of endless frustration—for you or you child.

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