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How Do You Teach Math You Don’t Know?

Tips For Teaching Kids Math

Funny College Ecard: How I see math word problems: If you have 4 pencils and I have 7 apples, how many pancakes will fit on the roof? Purple, because aliens don't wear hats.

Of all the subjects we study in school, math is the most despised by a long shot. In one poll, 37 percent of adults said that they “hated” math in school, more than twice that of any other.

Any number of factors can play a role in forming a person’s negative associations with math. A poor teacher in school, a traumatic or embarrassing experience in math class, misconceptions about the importance or ease of learning math, and parental bias against the subject can all lead to a strong dislike of mathematics.

For parents who struggled with math, or simply hate the subject, you may be wondering how you can help your own child with a subject you have difficulty with yourself. If your child is in middle or high school, you may even find that your kids are learning math that you don’t remember or never fully understood to begin with. Here are some tips and things to bear in mind when teaching kids math or helping with math homework.

  • Have a positive attitude. Parents who struggle with math or say they hate math have a very good chance of passing on those negative feelings to their children. Avoid making negative statements about math or about your own abilities to your children, and avoid repeating common misconceptions about math.
  • Don’t spread myths about math. There is no “math gene” that makes some people better at math than others. Numerous studies have found that boys are not genetically predisposed to be better at math than girls, and that there is no difference between the brains of men and women that gives males an advantage.  The gender gap in math achievement is a result of stereotypes and misconceptions about math in our culture, and the gap is gradually closing. Other myths like “math isn’t that important in the real world” or “math ability is passed down” (“my parents weren’t good at math so I probably won’t be either”) are false and can be harmful. Success in math is a result of determination and practice.
  • Make math fun. Check out our Math Pinterest board  for suggestions of simple and fun math games to play with kids. Or, read books about math. This list of math-related children books can help introduce a wide variety of math concepts in a fun and engaging way.
  • Make math real. You may have hated drills and worksheets when you were in school, but in all likelihood you do use math every day, in some way. There are math problems everywhere you look, from measuring ingredients in the kitchen, figuring out a tip at a restaurant, estimating how much paint to buy for a room, balancing a checkbook, or calculating a batting average. Involve kids in using math in the real world to make abstract concepts easier to understand.
    • Co-ops can be another great option for support, especially for families who homeschool. Homeschool co-ops often organize classes taught by parents who have strengths in a particular subject. If there’s a co-op near you, this could be helpful for subjects you don’t feel comfortable teaching yourself.
    • You might also consider reaching out to friends and family. If you have relatives or friends who are particularly strong in math, or work in a STEM occupation, consider asking if they’d be willing to teach a lesson or two, or be available to help with a particularly tough concept.
    • Dual-credit courses at a local community college are another good choice, especially for students who are advanced.Get support. You’re not alone. If you’re a Learning Coach in an online school, your teacher is there to support you and your student and is available to help when your child has trouble with a concept. Remember that it’s OK to struggle along with your child in working out a problem. This can actually set a good example for kids of the determination that is necessary to succeed in math. But if you aren’t able to teach a concept yourself, don’t be afraid to get help.

Remember that it’s OK to not be an expert in everything, and it’s OK to admit your weaknesses. Even if math isn’t your strong suit, it’s important to set an example for your kids by encouraging a positive attitude about math, and by seeking out help when you need it.

For math support, parents should also consider LearnBop for their children. A highly adaptive online math program for grades 4–12, LearnBop simulates one-to-one learning by providing immediate individualized instruction to the child’s needs. With step-by-step guidance from award-winning experts built into every problem, LearnBop adapts in real time to student interactions and breaks down larger math problems into smaller, more manageable steps so they can develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Schools have been using LearnBop for several years with great success, and now this personalized program will be available to students outside of the classroom. View the website for more details.

Tell us in the comments: How do you support your child in subjects you aren’t strong in yourself?

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Photo by maxime.mcduff / CC BY 2.0

This post was updated February 26, 2016

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Ashley MacQuarrie

Ashley MacQuarrie began writing professionally more than ten years ago and has covered education, technology, current events, pop culture, and other topics. A former homeschooler, she studied English and Film & New Media, graduating with a bachelor's degree from San Diego State University. Ashley has classroom experience working with children who have autism and other special needs. She has also tutored students from kindergarten through college and taught English to teens and adults at a language school in London.

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How Do You Teach Math You Don’t Know?

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