Special Report
Mathematics

Parents Are Often Nervous About Math. They Can Still Help Their Kids Learn It

By Evie Blad — May 01, 2023 7 min read
Illustration of a father and daughter in a classroom. The father is struggling to understand the math his daughter is learning.
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It’s a common scenario in many households: A child’s struggle with their math homework quickly becomes a frustration for their parents, too.

A child wrestles with a problem. His mom, trying to help, soon realizes she doesn’t understand it, either. Irritated with the situation, she either blames the school for teaching math in a newfangled way that doesn’t make sense to her, or she blames herself for being “not a math person.”

The result, educators say, is that a counterproductive attitude about math is handed down from one generation to the next, and a child misses out on a chance to learn.

It’s a misconception that parents and guardians have to be skilled at math to affect their children’s mastery of the key subject, researchers say. For one thing, many adults underestimate their own math skills. For another, even those with gaps in their own understanding can benefit children by modeling a positive attitude and a willingness to work through challenging ideas.

“When you get to the edge of hard, you are learning. That’s when you are really growing,” said Kelly DeLong, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for Mathematics, which helps schools throughout the state improve math instruction and outcomes. “If [adults] continue to purport that ‘I am not a math person,’ we do a disservice to the children in our home.”

As they work to address plummeting math achievement following pandemic-related school closures, more schools have sought to harness adult attitudes to help children learn. Educators have engaged parents with games, family activity nights, and materials that help them understand unfamiliar math content.

In the process, they’ve had to confront years of baggage around what many adults consider the most stressful academic subject.

Adults’ role in children’s math learning

For parents, math has a bit of a PR problem. While everyone from actor LeVar Burton to major organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics has stressed the importance of reading out loud with children at early ages, early numeracy—the ability to understand how numbers work—does not have a similar flashy ad campaign, at least not in the United States.

“It’s easier to see reading as something casual and recreational,” said Laura Overdeck, the founder of Bedtime Math, a nonprofit organization that seeks to change math attitudes by creating accessible story problems families can complete with their children. “There is an accountability in math that you just don’t have in reading.”

After reading a picture book, a parent may ask a child to reflect on the motivation or emotions of the main character. Such conversations come naturally, and a child learns by thinking through and vocalizing a response, not by saying the correct answer, Overdeck said.

“With math, you get the answer right or wrong,” and that can be stressful for parents, she said.

Many adults also have a distorted understanding of their own math abilities, Overdeck said, and some had subpar math instruction in their own K-12 schooling.

The key for parents is not suggesting that the right answer doesn’t matter or asking them to pretend that math isn’t difficult; rather, they need tools to help children retrace their steps and rework problems to identify where they went wrong in finding a solution, Overdeck said.

When parents expose their children to that secondhand math stress, it can actually weaken their ability to reason through a problem, said Kerry Friedman, a senior researcher who has helped develop family math interventions for the Regional Education Laboratory Appalachia.

“We know that when people have some level of anxiety around math, that interrupts your working memory,” Friedman said. “It stops even strong performers from being able to solve more complex problems.”

Rewriting the math narrative for families

Educators in West Virginia and Kentucky have taken a fun approach to confronting math stress as they worked with REL Appalachia to pilot family math nights in their schools.

It’s not unusual for 400 to 500 students, parents, grandparents, and siblings to pour into a Monticello, Ky., school for an evening of math games, math instructional coach Jamie Reagan said. The district also offers drive-thru math nights, a strategy it developed during COVID-related closures, in which families pick up materials and instructions for math games they can use at home.

Educators invite families to use math skills to make pizza with their children, to face off in arithmetic-related challenges, and to learn about how math concepts apply in real life. They decorate with themes like “Jurassic Park” or Halloween, invite uniformed high school athletes to drum up excitement, and even hold family costume contests to encourage turnout.

“We are building that parent-child engagement piece, and they are having fun,” Reagan said.

The REL family math night toolkit includes activities to demonstrate the importance of math and to reduce stress by making math concepts fun and familiar. One problem asks families what equation they would use to get “11" to appear on a calculator screen without hitting the 1 key. In another game, designed for young children, families work together to identify shaped blocks—a core early geometry skill—and put them together to build pictures of animals.

In a card game meant to build computational fluency, players five draw cards with numbers and mathematical operations on them, exchanging cards until they can arrange their hands into a math problem that results in an answer of 24 (for example: 1x4x6).

All games include instructions for facilitators at schools and for parents at home to ask each family member to explain how they reasoned through each challenge.

“There is a disconnect between parents and schools, just from the pandemic,” Reagan said. “Through these family learning nights, it’s starting to build that rapport again.”

The events have also given teachers a chance to explain new approaches to math instruction that may seem puzzling to older parents and guardians.

Reagan once met a farmer who was raising his grandchildren and confused by the conceptual approach to estimation in their homework . She explained it in terms he understood: Farmers might estimate the size of a field by walking across it, counting every three steps as a meter.

“We are introducing that conceptual understanding of what does 3 feet look like before we pull out a ruler,” she told the grandfather.

The school also offers materials developed by Kentucky’s education department that explain math learning standards in digestible, jargon-free terms.

The math-night strategies also aim to introduce parents to the concept of a growth mindset: the idea that students can acquire new skills through perseverance.

“We say, think about your journey. What was it that made you feel that way?” said DeLong, who helps Kentucky districts pilot math nights. “We want to be able to empower your child.”

Fun makes a difference

Research demonstrates the role adult attitudes play in their children’s math learning.

In a study published in the April 2022 edition of the journal Child Development, researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign asked parents to log their time spent assisting children with math homework and with low-stakes math-related activities, like measuring ingredients for a recipe or playing a card game that involves addition. Parents also took daily surveys to rate how “happy and content” or “irritated and anxious” they felt assisting their children, and they responded to questions about their own comfort with math.

The researchers found that parents with low confidence in their own math abilities were more likely to experience negative feelings helping their children with homework than with more routine math tasks. Those negative parental feelings correlated with lower children’s participation in math activities over time and poorer performance on math assessments a year after the surveys were conducted.

Tasks designed to help parents feel more confident in supporting their children’s math development may translate to better attitudes and improved achievement in the long run, the researchers concluded.

Similarly, in a 2018 study, researchers at Barnard College and the University of Chicago found that children whose parents regularly played games with them on the Bedtime Math app showed about three months more math learning gains than their peers in a control group, with the biggest benefits shown for children of parents who were highly stressed about math.

In other words: A spoonful of games might help the math anxiety go down.

“There is no more noble use of your time than to engage your community to have a positive math mindset,” DeLong said. “It translates into children who can persevere, children who learn at the edge of productive struggle, and then children who have the skills that can define a workforce for your community.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2023 edition of Education Week as Parents Are Often Nervous About Math. They Can Still Help Their Kids Learn It

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