Jan 13, 2021

Math Homework 101: How can I help my child with his/her homework?

Many parents are uncomfortable helping their children with math homework. First and foremost, it is incredibly  important family members avoid saying, “I was never good at mathematics, either.” That response only The Carpool Lane | Math Homework 101: How can I help my child with his or her math homework?widens the spread of math phobias —that some are just not good at math. Believe it or not, there is no such thing as a math gene. Doing math just takes perseverance and a positive attitude, but everyone can enjoy success with mathematics. 

While helping with homework, the parent may feel their own proficiency is being tested, and may be nervous about appearing uncertain in front of their child. Because of the discomfort, there is a tendency for parents to overcompensate by solving the problem, telling the child the right answer and then explaining the solution. Frequently, this is not the best way to promote the child's learning.

The process of finding the solution is often more important than the solution itself
The first thing a parent should remember is that this is their child's homework, not theirs. Parents should avoid suggesting their own ideas and instead entertain their child's when working through a problem. They do not have to arrive at "the right answer" in order to have a deep and successful learning experience. The brain is actively engaged in its optimal learning mode when there is an element of productive struggle involved in finding the solution. Embracing the struggle is how real mathematicians think!

What if your child says, "I don't know where to start?" Here are a few ideas:

  • Parents can ask about the basics or definitions.
  • Offer your child a simpler, worked-out example on paper and get them to explain it to you. This allows them to focus on the process rather than the answer. Get them to think aloud.
  • Validate their curiosity. Offer them praise and acknowledgment along the way, marking their progress.

If possible, use real world examples
At some point your child may articulate a line of thought that reveals a misconception. It will be very helpful to ask questions that lead them to a contradiction, or conflict between two views that they hold.

Here are some additional ideas to try:

  1. Parents should ask to see their child's notes and classwork in order to know what they are learning at their grade level. It's not effective using the Pythagorean theorem if that method hasn't yet been discussed in class. Try to use the method's they are being taught even if you had learned a different method.
  2. Talking about what the student understands about the problem can also be helpful. Sorting through the information and figure out together what would be useful and what information is not needed can help.
  3. Parents can also organize the information provided in the problem using one of the following strategies:
  • Draw a diagram
  • Make a list
  • Eliminate possibilities
  • Look for a pattern
  • Guess and check
  • Solve an easier, related problem
  • Work backward

Remember, a parent's attention is a gift to their child. Even merely sitting with one's child and doing homework together makes a tremendous impact. Parents will convey the message that their child's work is important. It is this, and the shared experience of discovery, that will contribute to the establishment of competence and confidence that makes any child a growing mathematician.

Adapted from: “Ask Dr. Math” Forum, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2020. Post #1 and Post #2