Tools and Tips for Helping Your Child Understand Math

Any educational analyst will tell you that the job markets with the largest potential for growth are in the STEM markets.  STEM stands for "Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics" and these four fields will define the future of businesses and will be the careers that future generations will need to prepare for.  Unfortunately, many parents feel overwhelmed when trying to help prepare their children for these areas because they feel improperly prepared themselves.  For many parents, the math that their children are being asked to complete is like a foreign language.  Particularly, when children move into middle school (generally 6th-8th grades) and begin to move into more pre-algebra, algebra, and geometry, the work becomes harder and it increases math anxiety for both the student and the parent.  So what is a parent to do to make sure that his or her child is able to succeed in the future in these courses?

One striking realization that has been supported by recent studies is that motivation may actually be more important than IQ or "natural mathematic ability" when it comes to success at math.  A study of 3500 German children showed significant improvement in classroom placement and scores if a child was considered motivated and if he or she used good learning strategies.  This latter part seems to be the key to true academic success.  While some students do seem to have an "innate" ability or gift for mathematics, many need to use learning strategies to help them not necessarily study harder but instead study smarter.

One fundamental paradigm shift in the way mathematics is taught has been suggested by Salman Khan who has endowed the Khan Academy to help create an online area for children to learn these crucial skills better.  The traditional format for teaching mathematics has always been for the teacher to explain a concept in class and then have the students work out problems at home which are then discussed the next day before moving on to the next concept.  If a child doesn't understand the concept, they are unfortunately left to flounder at home trying to solve problems that they just don't get, often asking help of their parents who haven't worked these types of problems in decades which only adds to the frustration.  Khan has placed on his website thousands of videos which explain mathematical concepts in simple terms with real world examples.  The shift occurs in his suggestion that students should "learn" a new concept at home on the computer, watching these professionally produced videos which are engaging and entertaining while also being very informative.  Once they have done their homework, they then come to school the next day and work the problems they would have previously done at home, only this time they are able to do them in the room with the teacher who can act as a personal guide if the student becomes stuck.  Here, the teacher moves from the role of the "sage on the stage" to the role of a facilitator who assists the student in his or her individual learning.  Even if your child's school has not adopted this new model of teaching, conscientious parents would do well to check out these videos and use them to help supplement their children's knowledge of key ideas.

Another smart move which parents can definitely utilize in helping their children understand mathematics is the use of play.  It is common sense that children will learn more and better when they are actively engaged and play is a very easy way to do this.  For younger children, fun games like Candyland or Chutes and Ladders can teach mathematical concepts such as counting as the child moves around the gameboard.  For older children, online games can easily be found which help reinforce more complex concepts such as algebra and geometry.  By turning the learning into a fun experience, parents can help ensure that the child will stay interested in the concept and also keep them motivated and tuned in to math.