This article appears in Family Magazine January 2018.
If you’re a parent who has trouble helping your child with his math homework, you’re not alone. Today’s young children are exposed to math concepts earlier than their parents ever were.
What’s a parent to do when confronted with tricky homework?
“Although parents don’t play as much a role as teachers do in teaching math to elementary-age kids, they are essentially faced with the same problem when they try to help,” said Fuchang Liu, associate professor of math education in the Wichita State University College of Education, Kansas. Liu recently published a book, “Common Mistakes in Teaching Elementary Math,” based on his years of experience working with elementary school teachers.
An educator for more than three decades, Liu has some helpful tips for parents, too.
“As many common mistakes in teaching elementary math have been passed down from generation to generation, parents make similar mistakes as teachers do,” he said. “This applies to one group of parents in particular: those with children being home-schooled. Most of these parents did not go through any teacher education program, let alone any specialized training in math,” Liu said.
A parent’s anxiety about math can make homework time even more difficult. If you’re confused about homework, Liu suggests picking up a resource book to help. Look for a book that is appropriate for your child’s grade level, Liu said.
If you’re not a math guru, your child’s teachers should be your first line of help.
“After all, they teach the math their children are learning and they are doing a fantastic job on a daily basis, and many issues may be discussed with them and get solved,” Liu said.
‘That’s not how I learned it’
One common problem many parents encounter is that they may know a different way of reaching a correct answer. If you’re baffled, reach out to the teacher for a deeper conversation. Get help immediately rather than waiting for the annual parent-teacher conference.
Many schools also offer before- and after-school tutoring. Friends, family members and even the babysitter may be able to help, but Liu said to “avoid seeking help from people without proper training in math or math education. They may be well-intentioned, but advice given in the wrong direction may have a long-lasting but detrimental impact on the child,” he said.
For example, Liu recounted a fifth grader in Marion, Ohio, who texted the local police department for help on a math problem.
“The officer on duty texted back. Despite the good intention for trying to help, the officer actually gave the wrong answer,” Liu said.
Don’t necessarily believe the internet
“Parents should also avoid relying exclusively on information put on the internet. Anyone can put anything on the internet, and many times the person posting the information may not have the proper understanding of the math problem being discussed. I’ve seen many YouTube videos with serious mistakes in them. Such information should only be used with a critical eye, not blindly,” Liu said.