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  • Writer's pictureCarrie S. Cutler

5 Simple Steps to Becoming the Math-Positive Parent You've Always Wanted to Be

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

We’ve all been there—sitting across from a child struggling with math and feeling like a struggling parent. And those feelings are even more pronounced right now with many of us parents taking on the additional role of at-home teacher. For some reason, we're okay helping our kids with reading and writing, but when it comes to math, many of us feel more math-panicked than math-positive.

You may be among the approximately 93% of adult Americans who indicate that they experience some level of math anxiety or the 17% of us who suffer from high levels of math anxiety. But don’t blame yourself too much if you have a distaste for math. Your negative feelings may not be entirely your fault.

Sadly, many of us grew up believing math was reserved for the brainy few born good at math or possessing a math gene. Worse yet, schools routinely excluded some from higher level mathematics. Many students, especially those who were poor, nonnative speakers of English, disabled, female, or members of racial-minority groups, became victims of low expectations for math learning. Students who “struggled” to learn math were tracked into lower-level math classes and given lower expectations for success. Math also got a bad rap from media stereotypes of math nerds or female airheads who breathily moaned, “Math is hard.”

Thankfully, today a vision of mathematics for all has changed many of those misconceptions.

The bottom line is you would not expect your child not to read; similarly, you should not expect your child not to do mathematics.

Now is the time for parents to step up and promote math-positive attitudes in their homes.

Here are five simple steps to get started.

1. Quit bashing math.

Speak positively of math as the useful, relevant tool it is. One need only open a newspaper to find a dozen articles that cite statistics, data, projections, and other real-world applications for mathematics--especially related to the current pandemic. You don't have to seek out depressing statistics though; for young children, simply describing the math in your day may open a child’s eyes to the relevance of mathematics. Explain the math in your work, your hobbies, your home life. From measuring a recipe to creating a budget, math is useful and necessary to a successful life.

Bad-mouthing math won't help you or your kiddos, so as the saying goes,

"Just stop it!"

2. Be a math-positive role model.

Children get many of their cues about behaviors and values from the adults who care for them. I’m sure you’ve noticed your child mimicking your behaviors, preferences, and mannerisms. My sons sure do. Chas holds his fork just like his dad does. McGregor chooses chocolate over fruit just like I do. Recently, Duncan asked for help downloading music onto his cell phone. What music did he want? The '80s alternative music his dad prefers.

Children watch adults and do as adults do.

3. Embrace what Cathy Seeley, former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics calls constructive struggle.

Math doesn’t always come easily. When we recognize that effort, persistence, and appropriate challenges are the recipe for success in math—rather than natural talent—we regard our mistakes and struggles as the substance of math learning. Brain research by Sian Beilock shows that when confronted with a mistake in mathematics, synapses in a fixed mindset individual’s brain fire less frequently that those in the brain of a growth mindset individual. While the brain of the growth mindset individual engages with the mistake, trying to understand and learn from the error, the fixed mindset brain remains comparatively static. Simply put—fewer neural connections means less learning.

When we adopt a growth mindset, we realize that we can grow our brain’s ability to understand mathematics by persisting when math gets tough.

4. Strive to understand as much as possible about how math it taught nowadays.

Parents may find today’s teaching approaches, unfamiliar math terms, and unclear expectations downright befuddling.

Math is the same as it always has been, but the ways we’re teaching it are different--

and hopefully better!

Instead of relying on memorizing procedures and learning things by rote, teachers encourage students to learn concepts first so they will understand the underlying reason for the procedures. In this section, I provide links to helpful videos for the new-fangled approaches your kids are learning. The videos were created by students at the University of Houston's College of Education.

An example of a conceptual approach is using partial products to solve multiplication problems. If we want to know 25 x 18, we can break the problem into parts to make it easier to solve. We might choose to solve 25 x 10 = 250 and 25 x 8 = 200. Those partial products (because they’re parts of the original numbers) are pretty easy to add together to find the answer: 450.

25 x 18 could also be solved using concrete models or an area model or box method or even the boring old standard algorithm.

There are many right ways to solve math problems, and encouraging kids to be flexible in their approaches is fundamental to today's new-and-improved approach to learning.

I remember turning in a worksheet full of correct answers, only to be told to re-do it because I hadn’t done it using the teacher’s preferred strategy. I hope that wouldn't happen today! Instead, math teachers offer lots of approaches and honor children's individual ways of thinking about and doing math.

5. Do math with your kids.

Doing math is the best way to overcome math anxiety. My YouTube channel and 20-Minute Math Activities aim to help even the most math-panicked parents see how simple, hands-on activities build math-positive mindsets along with mathematical understanding.

Keep it short. Don't worry about memorizing stuff. Skip workbooks. Use hands-on materials like flyswatters, dominoes, straws, and playing cards that make math fun!

I hope these tips help you in your quest to become the math-positive parent you've always wanted to be. If you're a fan of podcasts, listen to my interview with Method2theMathness, podcast hosts Jennifer and Nikki. We talk all about how to overcome math panic and embrace math positivity. Or check out Math-Positive Mindsets: Growing a Child's Mind without Losing Yours for more great ideas.

Being a parent is tough! Being a math-positive parent doesn't have to be. You got this!

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