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Tips for How to Help Your Kid with their Math Homework

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Back in October, GeekDad’s Curtis Silver postedabout a recent survey which found that parents would rather talk to their kids about drugs than about math and science.

Some parents don’t feel comfortable explaining math to their kids because they don’t understand it themselves. Other parents, even if they love math, find today’s teaching methods so different from how they learned math that they don’t know how to help.

Silver observed that even parents with advanced math knowledge might not know how to relate it to their own little geek. What’s a full-grown geek to do?

Wherever you fall on the spectrum of geekdom—whether you use math daily as part of a geek job, or haven’t done long division in decades—and no matter your kid is learning the times tables or studying trigonometry—here are some tips on how to help your kid with their math homework.

First, some thoughts on attitude:

Be an explorer, not an expert. Go into your math time in the spirit of a shared exploration instead of feeling like you need to be an expert. You can help your kid a lot, even if what they’re doing is initially unfamiliar to you. Don’t be afraid to say, “Let’s figure this out together,” or “I haven’t done it this way before. Can you tell me more about it?”

Stay positive and keep trying. Getting good at math means being willing to persevere in the face of a challenge. If you don’t get it right away, that’s OK. Kids learn a lot from watching someone model what to do when they’re faced with unfamiliar material.

Follow your kid’s lead. Just because your kid is the fruit of your loins doesn’t mean that their brain works anything like yours. So share any tips or tricks that work for you, but don’t take it personally if they don’t click with your kid.

Likewise, if your kid spontaneously comes up with their own learning strategy or memory trick, run with it. It will boost your kid’s confidence in their own thought processes.

Now for some nitty-gritty step-by-step suggestions:

Before diving in, ask your kid to tell you what’s going on. They get a chance to demonstrate what they do know, and you get a chance to review the material.

Also ask your kid to tell you what they don’t understand so they can reflect on their own learning and maybe pinpoint the missing links. (If they can’t articulate which part they don’t understand, that’s OK.)

Ask questions to walk them through the problem. Even if you understand the problem perfectly, don’t give a demonstration that puts your kid in the role of a passive observer. Instead, use really simple questions (that your kid has a 95% chance of answering correctly) to walk them through the steps of solving the problem.

Instead of telling your kid, “4 times 8 equals 32,” ask them, “What is 4 times 8?” Instead of telling them, “For the next step, we need to …”, ask them what happens next.

Asking questions keeps your kid from spacing out. It breaks down the process into smaller pieces. And the questions show your kid what they should do when they’re alone.

Plus, asking questions helps you find the disconnects. If you ask your kid, “What is 4 times 9?” and they say, “twenty-five,” you know you need to review multiplication facts.

When in doubt, write it out. Encourage your kid to write out all the steps in their work. The less they have to keep track of in their head, the more accurate they’ll be. And this lets you see their thought process.

Review an example from their textbook or handouts together.
If you don’t understand how to do a problem, and you have examples of problems being worked out step by step, go over a couple together.

Once you feel confident, practice by working on similar problems. To make sure you’re on the right track, try to pick problems where you can check the answer in the back of the book.

Backtrack. You can’t build a solid foundation on shaky ground. If there’s some prerequisite knowledge that doesn’t make sense to you, go back through your kid’s materials to find where the concept or procedure was first introduced and then review it together.

Or, if your kid understands it and you don’t, ask them to explain it to you, or take time to review it on your own.

Consult different materials. If the examples from textbook or handout still don’t make sense, do not despair. Seek another explanation from an alternative source. This lets you model resourcefulness.

For an awesome basic algebra text, try Algebra: Structure and Method. More visual or tactile learners might appreciate the Math U See curriculum. Girls learning or reviewing pre-algebra might enjoy Danica Mackellar’s excellent math books for girls, Math Doesn’t Suck and Kiss My Math.

Also, Khan Academy offers great instructional math videos in an organized index. YouTube has even more math videos, but it can take some digging to find the good ones. And you can check out some instructional math videos I made here.

In conclusion: You can help your kid, no matter how remote their math homework might seem to you. These steps can help your kid hone their very own math powers.

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