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Just 40 percent of U.S. fourth-graders are proficient at math. This is a worrying statistic, given that young kids' numeracy skills are associated with later academic achievement. Fortunately, parents — even those who count themselves among the 30 percent of U.S. adults who lack basic math skills — can help their kids improve in, and maybe even enjoy, the subject. Here's how.
1. Talk to the teacher(s)
Don't wait until your kid is struggling to find out what she's (supposed to be) learning in math class, advises Robert Q. Berry III, PhD. He's the Samuel Braley Gray Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education and Human Development, and president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the world's largest mathematics education organization.
Talking to your child's math teachers is also a good idea because, while "content hasn't changed significantly" since today's parents were in school, "the ways in which we teach that content has changed," Berry says.
Today, "students are asked to represent their thinking using technology and manipulatives (objects that help explain mathematical concepts), as well as explain their thinking, rather than [just] giving an answer," Berry explains. "There's more of a focus on making sure students understand what they're learning." So, familiarize yourself with the curriculum, and don't be afraid to ask questions or seek advice.
2. Incorporate math into daily activities
Cooking, for instance, "lends itself to math," since following recipes requires thinking about proportions and using fractions, says Berry. Talking about sports scores, time, and prices are other easy ways help kids "make concrete connections to math."
3. Play games
For younger children, "board games, like Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land, and dice games help kids subitize," (recognize quantities without having to count) and decompose numbers (show how larger numbers are built out of smaller ones), Berry says. These skills develop "in informal ways with kids. And we hope this leads to number sense."
4. Explain that errors are inevitable
In math, "Everyone gets a lot of wrong answers," declares Montclair State University Professor Emerita of Mathematics Patricia Clark Kenschaft, PhD. She is the author several books, including Math Power: How to Help Your Child Love Math, Even If You Don't, and has taught the subject at every level.
"My students were always startled when they found me making a mistake," Kenschaft recalls. "They seem surprised that I was happy when they noticed, but I was teaching them that it's important to accept when you're wrong." Don't criticize kids when they make mistakes, and, "When your children correct you, say 'Oh, thank you!'"
5. Challenge kids who say they hate math
Whenever Kenschaft hears this, "I say, 'Why do you think you hate it? It brings some of us so much pleasure.'" If a student answers, "I can't do it," she automatically responds, "Of course you can."
6. Try manipulatives
Inexpensive color tiles, color cubes, base 10 blocks, and other small, mobile tools help younger kids understand mathematical concepts. "All of these can be used to represent algebraic reasoning and multiplication," Berry points out.
7. Search social media
"If you're on Twitter, many teachers and math educators contribute to #tmwyk (talking math with your kids), and post examples about how they introduce mathematical concepts," Berry says. Other hashtags to explore include #iteachmath, #mtbos (short for "math Twitter blog-o-sphere"), and #mathchat.
YouTube videos can also be helpful: High school math teacher Rachel Sanders suggests searching the site for recent worksheet titles or stated learning targets.
8. Explore NCTM resources
Berry recommends the NCTM's Mathematics Video Series for Parents from the Hunt Institute, a North Carolina-based educational policy non-profit. He's also a fan of Figure This!, a math game website for kids and their caregivers.
9. Check out these books
Dr. Berry likes Table Talk Math: A Practical Guide for Bringing Math Into Everyday Conversations, Which One Doesn't Belong? A Shapes Book, Talking Math with Your Kids (an e-book); It's Elementary: A Parent's Guide to K-5 Mathematics, and Adding Parents to the Equation: Understanding Your Child's Elementary School Math.
10. Don't badmouth math
"Don't tell your kids that you don't like, or aren't good at math," Berry says. "All people are math people. You just may not have had the right teacher yet."
11. Don't underestimate your — or your kids' — abilities
"Most parents can add and multiply, and that's what you want to teach children when they're little," Kenschraft points out. In return, "Kids want to tell you what they know, too — they'll enjoy teaching you mathematics." Let them instruct you.
"Math is the study of patterns, and the use of patterns to solve problems — it's not about the computations itself," Kenschaft adds. "People like patterns. It's this business of right and wrong that gets people." So, if you're tearing your hair out over a worksheet, remember her words of wisdom: "To enjoy math, you have to accept the fact that you'll make a lot of mistakes."