Ways to Make Kids Love Math

It’s no secret that students in the United States have fallen behind their counterparts from other industrialized countries in math and science performance. Margaret Spellings, the U.S. Secretary of Education, has stated, “If America is going to stay the best place to do business in the world, we must have the best math students.” Even in today’s tough job market, college graduates who have strong backgrounds in mathematics have their pick of high-paying jobs in any number of industries because there is simply not enough talent to meet the demand for these positions.

   But no one is born a math genius. Certainly, some students have a stronger predilection towards “left-brain” thinking than others, but in my experience, every student can be successful with mathematics as long as they have a positive attitude and enough confidence to overcome the inevitable setbacks.

   This is why it is critical to create a mathematical “environment” for your children, especially during the formative years between pre-K and fifth grade. Students who are regularly exposed to mathematics in their everyday lives early on will be in a much better position to embrace higher-level mathematics in high school, college, and beyond.

   Here are five tips for parents:

TIP 1: Never say things like “Math is hard,” or “I was never good at math either,” or “You don’t need math to be successful.” This gives students an easy way out of something that will likely be challenging for them. If math is not important to you, it is very likely not going to be important to your student.

TIP 2: Conversely, you can’t make a student like math, and lecturing or pressuring a student can have detrimental effects. It’s more important to make the learning process fun and engaging. Any “extracurricular” math that you do with your student should be on the light side. Playing a math game in the car or on the train is a great way to pass the time, but don’t force it if your child is not in the mindset to learn. It’s a good idea to set a time limit on the activity and stick to it; 15 to 20 minutes is appropriate for most elementary school students.

TIP 3: Students should know their math facts cold. Speed and accuracy are critical to computation, and students who have mastered their math facts possess greater confidence. Parents can easily help students achieve “fluency” by encouraging regular practice with flashcards outside the classroom. Again, observe a time limit when working with your child on their math facts.

   Keep a record of your child’s progress and look at each math table as a goal to be reached with a small reward at the end. Create a chart for each table — one through 12 for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division — and record your child’s speed and accuracy each time he practices. When he has mastered a table (usually defined by 100 percent accuracy in 30 seconds or less), make a big deal out of his accomplishment and offer the reward.

   Rewards can be used effectively as motivational tools — just make sure rewards are attached to a specific goal or accomplishment and not used inconsistently or inappropriately.  Rewards do not need to be big or expensive.  Come up with ideas as a family; think of things like a special dinner or dessert, having a friend over for a playdate, or staying up later on a weekend night.  

TIP 4: Math facts are important, but parents should also encourage “mental math” so that students learn to appreciate “number sense,” which is defined by the University of North Carolina’s School of Education as “an intuitive understanding of numbers, their relationships, and how they are affected by operations.” Students with strong number sense are better problem solvers; they can approach solving a problem in different ways, identify errors in their work when they occur, and be more confident and interested in math because they understand that math is more than just a series of operations to be followed.

   Estimation, for instance, is great for building number sense, and is also a valuable life skill. Similarly, show students how they can “manipulate” computation problems to make them “easier.” For instance, instead of solving 98 times 15 with a calculator or pencil and paper, show your child how to solve it using “mental math:” 98 times 15 is two 15s less than 100. We know that 100 times 15 is 1,500 and that 2 times 15 is 30, so if 1500 minus 30 is 1,470, then 98 times 15 is also 1,470. Other activities to stimulate numbers sense include number patterns, multiples, and games such as “guess my number,” where you think of a secret number, give the range that it falls in, and have your child try to guess it.

TIP 5: Make math real. Math is all around us in the form of money, time, measurement, and numerous other daily encounters. Help your student appreciate the value of mathematics by pointing out the mathematical world we live in wherever you go. For example, a simple trip to the grocery store contains hundreds of possible math problems for the interested student. You can download a free copy of Helping Your Child Learn Mathematics, which has dozens of activities for parents of elementary school students, at the U.S. Department of Education website:  http://ed.gov/parents/academic/help/math/index.html.

JEFF SHARPE is the executive director of Vertex Academic Services in Manhattan at 330 Madison Avenue, sixth floor. For more info: www.vertexacademic.com or 212-573-0980.