Tips for Parents: Helping Kids with Math Homework

Do you feel like you’ve been left behind when it comes to helping kids with math homework? Is it over your head? Do you sometimes say, “I used to know how to do this?”

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Many parents experience this feeling as their children progress through elementary, middle, and high school. For some parents, the thought of fractions makes them ill. For others parents, the first year of algebra is cause for panic. Some parents, even those who were “good math students” in school, often find that trying to helping their kids with homework develops into constant battles. The child tells the parent that the teacher didn’t do it this way and the parent tells the child that "this is the way I learned it." What does a parent do when these situations arise?

Start by setting up a private conference with the teacher. Convey to the teacher the difficulties with completion of the homework. Ask the teacher for suggestions on things that you can do to help with homework, even though you don’t feel able to “teach” the material. When a child is having difficulty with a concept, it often reflects on a former concept that he did not completely understand or does not remember. For example, to add 1/3 + 1/4, it is necessary to find a common denominator. To do this, the child must know multiplication facts well enough to recognize a common denominator. This particular addition requires that a common denominator, such as 12, be used. If he does not readily know that 3 times 4 equals 12, recognizing a common denominator becomes a major obstacle in the work. The student is left wondering how one knows that 12 is the common denominator because he doesn’t recognize the relationship between the three numbers 3, 4, and 12. Thus, in the conference, the teacher may tell you that she has recognized that your child needs to work on multiplication skills. As the student moves from grade to grade, he should bring skills learned in former grades. If the teacher does not mention basic skills that should have been brought into the class at the beginning of the year, ask specifically if she sees any deficiencies. If the teacher answers your questions with phrases that do not completely describe how you can help at home, ask again. Use a question such as, "Can you tell me how I might incorporate this into our study/practice time at home?" Don't leave the conference feeling that your child needs help, but you don't know precisely what you can do.

Teachers generally have before-school time or after-school time to offer individual help to the student. Take advantage of these times and keep in constant contact with the teacher as both of you evaluate the progress and success of this plan. It’s important that you check frequently with your child to know how he or she feels about the benefit of these help sessions. If the teacher has four or five students coming in at the same time for help, it may revert to a re-teaching situation rather than the one-on-one help that was intended.

In the conference with the teacher, ask for input on exactly what she feels is the problem. She might respond say that your child doesn't follow written directions or hasn't memorized the formulas that are needed for the work. When doing homework, children often just follow the example(s) given by the teacher. Then when quiz time comes, the child is confused by the directions because he is unfamiliar with them. Each day, either your or the child read the directions and talk about what the instructions indicate. If memorization skills need work, help your child to organize flashcards and practice with him on a daily basis.

Make notes of questions that you want to ask before the conference. As these questions are answered, make notes of the responses. Use the child’s returned papers to help formulate questions. Ask things such as, “From this paper, what would you say Johnny needs to work on?” Then, when you send Johnny in for help, remind him to take out the paper and ask the teacher to show him what she meant by “prime factorization” or “lease common multiple.”

When working with your child, don’t use the “We’re going to sit here until you know how to do this” approach. Instead, use minutes in the car to sports practices or to appointments to work on memory facts or just to talk about the school day. It's a good time to find out what went well during the day and what caused difficulties both academically and emotionally.

Learning should be challenging to the child, but it should not be an endurance test. Work on a few things at a time rather than try to conquer the world overnight. Start with a few review questions that you're sure the child knows and move on to two or three new ones. Use compliments as a reward often! The child needs to feel that he is accomplishing something rather than feel bombarded with facts that give him difficulty. Whether at home or in the car, turn off all phones, IPODs, DVDs, and other distractions and engage in a short but non-threatening review or practice session.

A second means of handling math difficulties is through a parent/child swap. Find out from other parents where their child is having trouble in the class. Perhaps while your child is struggling with math, another child is struggling with science. If you’re knowledgeable in science, you might organize a swap so that another parent helps your child with math while you help her child with science concepts. Since parent/child homework sessions often become battles of will, this relieves the household of stressful situations. If you find that several children are having trouble in the same area, talk to the teacher about incorporating a “review of concepts” session into her routine. Remember, though, that the teacher has a curriculum that specifies exactly what she has to cover in a year’s time and the need to get all these concepts covered make for limited review time.

Another option is to seek the professional help of a good tutor. Again, enlisting the help of someone out of your household relieves the family stress factor. In addition, you know that your child is getting help from someone who is knowledgeable and cares about the success of your child. For younger children, make sure that you convey to the tutor exactly what the child needs to work on in that session. Contact frequently both the teacher and tutor for progress. Due to busy schedules, neither the tutor or teacher has time for frequent lengthy conversations or progress reports, so use email or text messages to contact either. You can get the information that you need about progress through frequent but brief messages. Mention to your child that the teacher or tutor complimented his progress or stated that more work is needed in a specific area. Your child needs to know that you are still involved in his learning even though you aren’t the one giving the help. If your work own schedule makes commuting to a tutor inconvenient, remember that there are numerous professional, well-qualified tutors on line. Just do your homework in finding one of these.

As a parent, you realize that not completely understanding or mastering a concept leads to more difficulty as the math builds on that concept. When your child approaches college, he will take the SAT or the ACT college admission test. This admission test will be used to qualify him for scholarships. Both of these tests require that your child be proficient in his math skills. So, whether you opt to work at home with your child, to use a parent/child swap for extra help in a subject, or to enlist the services of a private tutor, remember that the child needs to be complimented frequently on his successes rather than to hear more about his weaknesses. Your primary concern should not be merely helping kids with homework but to rear a healthy, happy, well-rounded child who feels that he can be a success in life even though he may not be able to excel in every subject in school.

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