By 8:30 on Tuesday night, I was ready to go home and curl up with a good book. But there I was, crammed into a windowless computer lab with 25 other exhausted parents, listening to the new math teacher describe how math instruction would work this year.

He described how the Common Core standards will change math education and showed off the fancy online curriculum that our school is lucky to have. Then he asked for questions — and the parents pounced. Poor guy.

See, this fellow is exactly what students need. He’s tough; he’s smart; and he thoroughly understands a critical element of mathematics education: Kids have got to take risks that might not lead to a solution. Just like Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein and Ada Byron Lovelace (yes, she’s Lord Byron’s daughter and the founder of scientific computing) went down long and winding roads to their discoveries, our kids must do the same.

But the parents were having none of that. The homework that Mr. T is sending home each night is really challenging. Really challenging. My daughter was complaining and crying and slamming doors because of it. And I know we weren’t alone in our little nightly soap opera.

As the parents got more frustrated and asked more and more questions about grading and building confidence and avoiding stress, I realized that they were missing the whole point. As parents, it’s not our job to shelter our kids from struggle and frustration. I was having a really hard time resisting the urge to step up to the front of the room and do some damage control.

So I figured I should take this opportunity to share my ideas here. Fact is, Common Core may mean that your child is more frustrated. But there are ways to cope.

1. Get proactive

What do the Common Core objectives say? Well, they’re no big secret. Check out this grade-by-grade list. I want you to notice something really, really important: the list of concepts your child is expected to grasp by the end of the year is pretty darned short. At the same time, these ideas are pretty robust. The objectives cover less material and fewer facts, but they do so more deeply.

Armed with some information about Common Core, you will be better able to set the parameters around what your child is learning at home. If solving for x is not on that list, don’t expect your child to do it. But if ratios are, it could be helpful for you to brush up on those concepts. (See Wednesday’s post for help on this.) But not so you can walk your child through a process. (Keep reading for more info on that.)

2. Meet the teacher

And at this meeting, don’t get hung up on grades and tests. Ask her what her teaching philosophy is. Ask what she wants you to do to help support your child’s learning. It is very possible that you’re making assumptions about your role. Depending on your child’s age, you might need to offer a great deal of help. Or you might need to back off. Your child’s teacher can tell you for sure.

If your child has math anxiety, this is a great time to share that with the teacher. Sometimes even the best teachers inadvertently send messages to their kids that unnecessarily ups the anxiety. (Some struggle is good; too much can shut down the pathways of critical thinking.) Offering the teacher a little background in your kids’ previous math experiences can be really useful.

3. Trust

This is probably the hardest step, but unless you have really good reason not to, you must trust your child’s teacher. Seriously. In my observation, many parents think they understand everything about teaching, simply because they were once students.* That approach undermines teachers’ authority and ignores their education and expertise. It’s actually pretty insulting in some ways. Just because you can flush a toilet doesn’t mean you are a plumber. The same goes for teaching.

Teachers are not just experts in their field of study (math, Spanish, English, science); they’re experts in pedagogy, which is the practice of teaching. And pedagogy is much more mysterious than trigonometry or set theory.  It’s where the science and art of teaching collide. The way in which topics are introduced and explored in the classroom is a careful dance. Sadly, some of this can be undone at home, during the homework wars.

Unless you believe your child’s teacher is downright incompetent, you’ve got to trust that she knows what she’s doing. Chances are, there’s very good reason she sent home those challenging problems.

*This goes for homeschooling parents, too. Anyone who has been successful with homeschooling will tell you that there’s a lot to learn about pedagogy — from the developmentally appropriate times to introduce certain concepts to proven ways to encourage exploration and discovery.

4. Stop spoonfeeding

Especially when kids enter middle school, we parents need to back off — big time. Yes, we want them to succeed. But what may be even more important is this lesson: failure is a part of learning.

I don’t mean that you should be okay with a failing grade or ignore his bellowing, “I DON’T UNDERSTAND!!’ But at some point (very soon!), you must stop checking his assignments or walking him through each and every problem. You also need to endure his frustration. When children make mistakes, they can learn from them. When they struggle, they learn they can overcome adversity.When you swoop in to rescue your child from struggle and frustration, you are actually depriving him of these important lessons. (If you want your kid to live in your basement, rent-free, after graduation, ignore the above.)

Check with your child’s teacher about the grading process for homework. Will he be expected to get the answers right? Or is the teacher merely expecting an honest effort? If effort is the main theme (and I hope it is!), quit trying to explain to your child how to do the work. Instead, offer support and encouragement. If you believe your child can succeed, he’ll believe it too.

5. Get curious

One of the best ways to get involved with your child’s education is to ask questions. Kids are rarely given an opportunity to verbalize what they understand about math. Curiosity is a is a huge gift you can give your kids. But in case you’re stuck, try keeping these questions in your back pocket for stressful times:

— What do you know about the problem? (Encourages your child to think critically about the information included in the problem.)

— What are you being asked to do? (Prompts the child to identify the question in the problem.)

— If your math teacher were here, what would she say? (Demonstrates an alliance between yourself and the teacher, and gives you information about her expectations.)

— What ideas do you have for solving the problem? (Helps students identify problem-solving techniques, like making a list, guess-and-check, drawing a picture, etc.)

Read through the above questions again. What do you notice about them? Yep, not a one of them has anything to do with getting the answer. Not a single one. And that’s because it’s not your job to find the answer. Your job is to help your child move towards an answer, not solve the problem for him.And with questions like these, you’re helping your child see math as a process, not merely a solution.

This is hard work. Even with my background in math education, I’m struggling with homework histrionics. It is no fun to come home from a long day at work, only to be pulled into an emotional tangle over math. But I will guarantee this: If you’re working with a good teacher and you practice the steps above, your child will learn to feel very confident in his math skills. And he’ll be a much better grownup for it.

What do you think about this advice? Which of these steps are you already practicing? Which do you think are challenging to implement? Are there any that you think are downright wrong? Share your feedback in the comments below. And if you have further questions, ask them!

So your kid needs some help with her math homework. Do you understand what she’s doing? Chances are, it’s not so cut and dry these days — and not because you don’t remember your middle school math lessons. Two things are going on in math ed: 1) concepts and processes are being taught differently, and 2) kids are getting more complex lessons earlier on.

All of this may leave you feeling completely helpless.

Luckily, there are some great resources out there that are there just to help you. Here are my top five.

Your child’s teacher

This is a really obvious idea, but not everyone thinks of it right away. Or maybe, like a lot of parents, you feel intimidated by the teacher or you don’t know how to ask for help. There are exceptions to the rule, but most teachers are eager to speak with parents, not only about their kids’ progress but about the best ways to help their child succeed. Find out how he or she prefers to communicate — email, phone or in person. Then use that resource as much as you possibly can.

Online textbook resources

Do you know what curriculum your child is using in math class? If not, find out, because today publishers are putting a wide-range of resources online — just for parents. This is especially true for discovery-based math programs, like Everyday Math and Investigations. The publishers of these programs know that they’re challenging for parents to grasp (since we learned very different ways of doing the math), so they’ve included very strong parent components.


This really simple website offers quick reviews of basic math ideas. Forgotten what a GCF is? You can find out here. Don’t remember how to solve for x in a proportion? This is a great place to start. Math.com also includes lists of formulas and some basic online tools, like a scientific calculator.


Focused entirely on algebra, purplemath is where you can find help with solving quadratic equationsor graphing linear equalities. Each concept includes a detailed lesson that walks you through the process and examples. Believe me, it’s been an invaluable tool for my addled brain!

The Math Forum

Ask Dr. Math has been around since 1992, so the site has amassed a wealth of questions from math students and answers from real-live math professors. Because it is generally focused on pedagogy (the concepts behind teaching mathematics) and higher-level math, it may seem a bit overwhelming. But if you search the archive, it is likely someone has asked the very question you have. You can also submit your own questions. But don’t expect an immediate response. This site is not designed for quick, individual feedback.

So there you have it, my top five resources for parents with math questions. Got any others to share? If so please include them in the comments section. Sometimes we need all the help we can get!

I wrote the following post for Simply Budgeted last August. Given our topic this month, I thought I’d share it as a great example of how parents can extend learning outside the classroom. Enjoy!

You probably find it pretty darned easy to encourage literacy.  In fact, there are countless magazine articles and books and workshops out there on this very subject.  And so all good parents read to their kids every night, play word games with them, give them magnetic letters for the fridge.

But what about math?  If you’re like most parents, the idea of working math into the day probably seems down right daunting.  Scary even.

It’s not as hard as you think, especially if you’re willing to give into your children’s demands for a regular allowance.  Money is an instant math lesson—and can motivate even the most reluctant student (adult or child).

Here’s how:

The Even Split: If you want to use allowance to encourage savings and charitable giving, you’re at least half way there.  One way to do this is to require kids to split their allowance into three equal accounts: spending, saving and giving.  If your five year old gets $3 per week, $1 goes in each pot.  But what about the kid who gets $6 a week?  Or worse, $10 a week?  Pose these questions, and let your child figure it out.

The lesson: Factoring and division

Percent, Per Week: For a more complex math problem, consider uneven distributions, say 20% spending, 20% giving and 60% saving.  Or encourage your child to put aside a certain percent of savings for a particular goal, like a new iPod.  Or enforce a different distribution around the holidays, when she buys gifts for her friends.  If she can’t do the math, she doesn’t get paid!

The lesson: Percents

Accounting for Savings: If you have a little investor on your hands—and some of us do—show him how to create a simple register for recording his savings and spending.  He’ll get a first-hand look at how his stash can grow (or shrink).

The lesson: Addition and subtraction

Project Savings: Your child will inevitably want something she can’t afford.  In that situation, help her figure out when she’ll have enough money in savings.  Can she wait that long?  If not, consider giving her a loan, with interest and a regular payment plan.  Show her how the interest is calculated and even help her figure out the total interest on the loan.

The lesson: Using formulas and problem solving

Math may be hard for you, but with a little bit of creativity allowance can help your kids practice their skills—and become a little more savvy with their own money.  Now all you have to do is remember your kids’ payday.

How have you used allowance as an impromptu (or regular) math lesson? Share your stories in the comments section.Save

I’ve written about this in a hundred different places, but it’s worth saying again: Parents know how to get their kids interested in reading. But in general, they don’t have a clue about math.

If you had a child in the last 10 years in the United States, you probably heard somewhere along the way how important it is to read to said child every single day. I started reading to my daughter when she was only a couple of months old, partly to establish a bedtime routine (for the both of us) and partly because I wanted her to fall in love with books at a very young age. Reading with our children helps reinforce the parent-child bond and is a super-duper easy way to spark neurons that lead to mega brain development.

And did I mention that reading to our kids is easy? And can be a lot of fun? (How many of us read Harry Potter aloud every night for a few years?)

Sneaking in some math is a little more of a challenge for most parents. But I promise, it can be as easy — and is abso-tootin’-lootly as important as reading to our kids. Not only does math help our kids understand the world around them, but reinforcing the concepts kids learn at school helps counteract the summer slide or brain drain.

But for a parent who isn’t so confident in his or her math skills, this prospect could be quite daunting. Or downright confounding. I could give you a list of ways to sneak in some math on a hot, summer day. But let’s see if you can come up with some ideas on your own. It all starts with a few questions:

1. Think about your day from start to finish. Mentally go through it bit by bit, and see if you can come up with five ways you used math. How do you use math in your everyday life?

2. Now, take one of those examples and consider the math. What process did you follow to solve the problem?

3. Examine that process even closer. What math did you use in the process? 

4. And finally think like your kid (not any kid, but your kid). How could you make your experience meaningful to your child? How would you explain the math that you did?

Try this out for a few days. Write things down if you want or keep it all in your noggin. In other words, start noticing where, when, how and why you’re doing the math that you need to function in your everyday life. Think simple, not complex. Are you estimating how long it will take to get to work? Are you reading a clock to find out how late you are to your meeting? Are you figuring out how many pounds of beef you need to buy for the cookout? Are you thinking about how much you’ll spend on your vacation?

Unless your child is itty-bitty, you can probably boil these things down to a level that he or she will understand. And now all you need to do is talk about these things.

My favorite approach is to think aloud.

“Boy, I’m late! I’m supposed to be at the office by 9:00, and it’s already 8:45. Let’s see, how late am I going to be if I leave in five minutes?”

“Do you think it will take me less time to roll down this hill than you? Let’s find out!”

My second approach is to ask my kid to help me. I usually claim being way too busy to handle everything on my own.

“Could you do me a quick favor? I need to know how many hotdogs and buns I should buy for the cookout. We’re having 10 people over. The hotdogs come 8 to a package and the buns come 10 to a package. Could you figure it out for me, while I make the rest of my grocery list?”

And lastly, I talk about math — just any old math.

“I just noticed the other day that I never can remember what 6 times 7 is. So I figured out that if I multiply 5 and 7 and then add 7, I get the answer. Cool, huh?”

I swear these things work with my kid. I’m not kidding. We talk about how we do math and we solve problems together. Sure, she still experiences some brain drain in the summer months, but I think all 12 year olds have a secret hole in their heads that allows far too much knowledge to fall out when they’re not in school. (And sometimes when they are in school.)

So tell me what you think. What daily math do you do in a day? How can you repackage that math so that your kid can practice a little in the summer? Try it, and then share your experience in the comments section. Or just do some brainstorming. You come up with a math situation, and I’ll offer some suggestions for sneaking it in to time with your kids.

P.S. If you haven’t seen Bedtime Math yet, check it out right now. Each day, three problems are posted — one for each of three age-groups — that addresses the math in a news item or a historical event. You could easily pose these questions to your kids. Ta-da! Work done for you!

Parents: when it’s time for math homework, do you suddenly have something else to do? When it’s parent-teacher conference time, do you first tell the teacher that you’re no good at math yourself?

First off, you’re not alone. It’s the number one thing I hear from parents: “I don’t know how to help my kid with math!” So I asked one of my favorite math teachers, Tiffany Choice. As an elementary and middle school teacher, Ms. Choice is a math education expert. And because of that, we instantly connected. Oh, she was also my daughter’s fourth grade teacher.

I asked Ms. Choice to share her best advice for parents. Want to help your kid succeed at math? Here’s how.

Just because you struggled in math class doesn’t mean your kid will.

Don’t pass on your dislike or acceptance of not being “good at math.” Always highlight the importance of math. If you cannot provide math homework support, find someone who can. Even if your kid has to call an uncle across country to try help clarify a problem, it goes a long way.

Math is best understood when applied to the real world.

Show your kids how you use dollars and coins at the store. Encourage understanding when they use birthday money to buy things. Discourage them from throwing the wad of money on the counter without understanding what they are doing. Explain to your child what you are doing when balancing that checkbook, measuring a wall or following a recipe. You are your child’s first teacher.

How you were taught to do something in math may or may not be the best way.

Education is swiftly changing to keep up with technology and each generation. Be open to many new ways of learning math concepts. Ask your child’s teacher to show you how a concept is being presented. I’ve had parents stop in during math instruction or for an after school conference.

Math isn’t learned right after the first lesson.

Parents should emphasize and allot time for practice — just like we encourage practicing the piano, ballet, reading, soccer, or French.

Realize the importance of and reinforce math vocabulary.

Math isn’t just numbers, it’s words too. Talk about what 20% off really means when they’re asking for that new toy. Use the words “total,” “difference,” and even “mixed number.” Believe it or not, truly knowing what those math words mean helps in the long run. I hate to mention standardized tests, but it’s something that’s here to stay (at least for now). More and more, math tests are transforming into reading tests.  Most of the questions are word problems. Certain understanding of math vocabulary can and will help your child avoid the sneaky test-makers tricks.

I’ll add one more thing: Encourage your child to explain their reasoning behind the math they’re doing — whether you’re helping with homework or asking him to divy up candy pieces at a play date. One of the biggest things that kids are being asked to do is write about math. (In my daughter’s school, these are called BCRs or Brief Constructed Response and ECR or Extended Constructed Response.) The kids who already verbalize their understanding of math will have an easier time with these tasks.

Do you have advice for parents? Whether you’re a teacher, parent or innocent bystander share your ideas in the comments section. Have a question? Share that, too!

Turn “Goodnight Moon” into a math book by counting selected items on each page.

When my daughter was born more than 11 years ago, I knew a few things: Physically connecting with her would help us bond, breastfeeding is best, and reading to her—even at a very young age—was critical for later language development.

Even when she was a mere four months old, she had an established bedtime ritual, which included at least 10 minutes of reading.  But no one mentioned math.  Apparently, infants can appreciate Goodnight Moon, but not Euclid.

My kid was lucky, though.  With a math educator for a mom, she got a great foundation in math well before she could even walk.  I didn’t have special plans to introduce math early; I just did it.But what’s a non-mathy parent to do?Find out in my guest post at One Mama’s Daily Drama. (Psst… it’s not hard at all!)Would you like me to guest post at your blog?  Or do you know of a blog that I would fit right in with? I’ve got lots of ideas to share with anyone who will listen! And I promise I’m a good guest.  I wipe out the sink after I brush my teeth and don’t mind if the cat sleeps on my pillow.  Get the details here.What kinds of math activities have you done with your kids?  Share your ideas in the comments section!