Helping a child with math is essential to their success. Recent studies have shown that while children in the US enjoy math as a subject, it often suffers from the perception that math skills are not needed or are not relevant [1].

Before being able to help your child, you need to help yourself. Some honest self-assessment is needed. What is your attitude towards math? Are you comfortable with helping someone else? Do you understand the methods your child is being taught? What are your strengths and weaknesses in this subject?

So a good idea is to begin by brushing up your own math skills and your knowledge of how children are taught. A very good place to go is www.mathsisfun.com, where you can revise particular topics and see how they are being taught. BBC Skillswise, though designed for the UK curricula, is an excellent and detailed place to test your own understanding.

Don’t be afraid of going into school yourself. Your child’s school is likely to be very pleased to offer you some advice (teachers like teaching, remember) and there are plenty of books designed for trainee teachers which cover some of the concepts underlying primary maths. A good example is Mathematics Explained for Primary Teachers by Derek Haylock [2]. Always try to be confident in concepts at least one level or so higher than the one your child is studying. For example, if your child is learning basic algebra, involving finding the missing number in a sum, you should try to be confident using terms such as x and y in expressions like this: 3y = 18 [3]. If they are studying multiplication, make sure you can tackle really difficult examples as well as simpler calculations [4]. This is a lot easier to say than to do. But it is important if you wish to help your child with their mathematical skills, because only if you have a solid grasp of the concepts they are studying can you help them without confusing them.

Of course you can help with homework. But homework can be a minefield, not least because the methods your child is being taught may well be different from the ones you were taught. It does pay to familiarise yourself with those methods, most of which are easily grasped, if a little more involved than the standard “tricks” you may have been taught yourself. The emphasis in primary mathematics these days is on understanding more than calculation. The bedrock of much of this is place value – what the zero is for, what 254 actually means and therefore what we are really doing when we take 198 from it. So helping your child with times-tables might well involve breaking out some blocks or sweets in order to demonstrate groupings as a concept. Never be afraid to take it slowly and cautiously (even if that sounds like a tautology), because it is better for your child to be slow and understand than to whizz through something they don’t get.

True help with math involves showing that it is a wonderful thing to learn, not just a chore. We have some beautiful picture books to help you read with your child, and most parents will be comfortable, in bed or on the sofa, and will snuggle up and read. It is much harder to do this with maths. But there are ways of doing it. You need to demonstrate to your child how much mathematics there is in real life situations.

This does not mean nasty questioning about change in the shops and so on, but it does mean you try to cook with them, measuring out amounts and casually trying to calculate remaining quantities (“So how much is left?”/”Uh…thirty grams”). It means making them familiar with time and money in natural, situation-based ways. Asking your child what time it is (while you are busy, clearly, and can’t look at the clock) a few times a day helps. You can play various games with them – not the games manufactured to help with maths, a child will see through those quickly – but using their toys. You can invent marble games in which x number of marbles or groups of marbles have to be struck or taken. You can conduct investigations of the length of your garden, or living room, or wherever – the park, even. Sure, you can’t snuggle down with some math, but you can share good, positive times with your child and their math.

Take the view above all, that it is not just about getting the grades and the homework right. It is about helping your child acquire a deeply satisfying skill, a springboard not only to many wonderful careers, but to a true understanding of the universe. And – have fun, just as you do with their reading!

Notes

[1] http://www.cnn.co.uk/2011/US/05/12/education.schmidt/index.html; see also http://opportunityequation.org/mobilization/american-attitudes-toward-math-science

[2] http://www.amazon.com/Mathematics-Explained-Primary-Teachers-Haylock/dp/1848601972/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1364922938&sr=8-1&keywords=mathematics+explained+for+primary+teachers

[3] 18 = 3 lots of y, so divide 18 by 3 to get the value of y. y=6.

[4] Such as: http://www.mathsisfun.com/numbers/multiplication-long.html