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How to Supercharge Your Kid’s Math Learning…And Love It!

Stop butting heads at math time, and turn your kid’s math learning into a time of fun and play with these simple tweaks!

I don’t get it! That’s not how my teacher did it!

Your kid is scream-crying, filling the room with howls of frustration and despair. How in the world did you get from a simple math problem to THIS?

It’s enough to make you want to swear off helping with math forever. (Or maybe just swear…loudly and repeatedly!)

comic book woman shouting Noooo! (helping kids with math)

You secretly wonder: Is it just me? What am I doing wrong that my child won’t let me help her? Should I just stop already before I make things worse?

It’s not you. Even the most brilliant math thinkers struggle to make math make sense to a child’s mind.

It’s a problem of translation…not a question of being good or bad at math. 

If trying to help with math is stressing you out, read on to learn:

  • why your math help isn’t helping and might be making things worse
  • how to ask better questions instead of trying to explain the math
  • how to end math fights and boost your kid’s math learning by turning math into play

3 Reasons Why Your Math Help Is Actually Making Things Worse

She’s even more frustrated now than she was before. 

You’re doing your best–explaining the math, peeking over her shoulder to make sure she doesn’t make a mistake–but your “help” is clearly not helping. 

daughter pouting on couch, dad trying to help with kid's math learning
“I don’t want you to help me with math anymore.”

Like every other parent on the planet, you’re making this up as you go along. And if you’re like most parents, you’re probably making these common mistakes: 

  1. You’re telling her a rule and explaining how to do the math when what she really wants is to understand how things fit together and what the math means.
  2. You’re acting like a teacher. She misses the fun, playful version of you–and she does not like it when you put on your strict teacher face.
  3. You care waaaay too much about her getting the right answer. That’s a lot of pressure. She’s stressed out that you’ll see her get a problem wrong. She needs space to practice what she’s learned, and maybe make a few mistakes.

You need a better way to help with math. One that fits your parenting style as snugly as your favorite fluffy bunny slippers, and reflects the fun-loving parent you are. 

How to Ask Better Questions (And Talk A Lot Less)

You can be an awesome math helper without knowing all the answers.

Let me say that again: you can be bad at math, and still be brilliant at helping your child with math. 

The best teachers rarely explain or instruct. Instead, they ask good questions that get kids thinking, like these:

>> What do the directions say?

(Most kids get unstuck by answering this question alone.)

>>What do you notice?

This snaps kids out of their reverie and gets them really thinking about the problems in front of them.

>>What do you wonder? 

This one is gold. It puts the focus on asking good questions–questions SHE wants to ask. It makes her curious. She learns to look at math in new ways, maybe even see relationships she’s never seen before.

>>How did you get that answer? 

When she gets a problem wrong, ask her to walk you step-by-step through how she solved it. You’ll get a peek into how her mind works, and understand why she made the mistake.

>>Was that problem too easy, too hard, or just right?

Ooh, I love this one! Kids feel smart when they can give an instant answer and get all the problems right…but learning means taking on a bit of challenge.

This question gets her to push beyond the easy problems, try something a little difficult, and stop worrying about seeming smart. 

little girl smiling as mom helps with her kid's math learning
Kids light up when you ask them authentic questions about math

The wonderful thing about these questions is that they have no wrong answers. 

We grownups are used to asking questions like, “What’s 6×2? How do we find the area of a rectangle? What’s a hexagon?”

That’s not an authentic question; that’s a quiz. You already know the answer. Any response she makes is either right or wrong…and that’s stressful.

But when you ask a question like, “What do you notice?” she can’t get that question wrong. You are asking to see inside her mind, her unique way of thinking about a problem. You can work with that.

You’ve given her permission to think for herself, and that’s where the real learning begins.

How to End the Math Fights

What I have to say next will be a little hard to hear.

All those things “everybody” says you’re supposed to do? Like drilling math facts with flash cards, or explaining how to do the math?

Those are the things that are causing your math fights…and the tears, the stress, the anxiety, and just plain wanting to pull your hair out.

Remember that list I gave you of common mistakes that parents make? Here they are again:

  1. You’re telling her a rule and explaining how to do the math 
  2. You’re acting like a teacher
  3. You care waaaay too much about her getting the right answer

When you give your child the steps to solve a problem, or expect your child to memorize a rule, it’s like teaching a back roads shortcut before your child has ever been behind the wheel of a car.

Let’s say you tell your child,  “area is length times width”. Certainly, she could plug in that rule and quickly solve a handful of problems.

But it’s likely she doesn’t really understand what area is. How do you measure a bunch of flat space–with a ruler? Why is area sometimes square inches and other times square feet…and why squares?

What does area look like in real life? How is area different from perimeter? Why do you multiply and not add? How do you use the “length times width” rule when a surface is T-shaped, or L-shaped, or anything NOT a rectangle?

Math ideas are complex. Your child’s brain is still developing, and being shaped by new mathematical concepts. Memorization has its place as a framework to anchor understanding, but it’s not the end goal. 

So where does that leave you? What is your (new and better) role in your kid’s math learning?

A healthier way to help with math.

To make the biggest positive impact, you should do just three things:

  • Make it safe for your child to try, fail, and try again
  • Ask good questions to encourage deep thinking
  • Make math fun*

*That last one really is a lot easier than it sounds. With a book like Miss Brain’s Cool Math Games you literally have years of fun math at your fingertips…ready whenever your kid says, “I don’t get it!”

When your child feels safe to challenge herself, is able to think deeply about numbers, and truly enjoys math, nothing will be able to stop her.

Summing Up & Next Steps

  1. Stop doing what’s NOT working: explaining the math and drilling facts and rules without understanding.
  2. Don’t worry so much about her getting the right answer. Expect some stops and starts before a new skill or idea sinks in.
  3. Ask thinking questions like, “What do you notice? What do you wonder? Was that problem too easy, too hard, or just right?”
  4. Create a safe space for her to learn without judgment or pressure. Give her all the time she needs to do her best work.
  5. Make math fun! Your first priority should be JOY, not perfection.

It feels like such a breath of fresh air when the stress disappears and you feel the hopeful, happy energy of truly supporting your kid’s math learning.

NEXT STEP: Learn about the incredible wonderfulness of math games and how to use them at home to help your child learn math through play.

Kelli Pearson
Author: Kelli Pearson

Kelli Pearson at Artful Math brings creative math experiences to kids who are underwhelmed by worksheets and tired of feeling like they’re bad at math. With a playful spirit and down-to-earth BFF vibe, she helps kids tap into their powerful brilliant selves and learn math with joy.

11 Comments

  1. Kittytwinkles says:

    We homeschool and my son seems to always start his math saying “can I get some help?”. Then I ask him to read the question out loud and I ask him does it say to add or subtract, multiply or divide? Even that question throws him over the edge… Maybe he just doesn’t know how to “drive” yet?

    1. The question about whether to add, multiply, divide, etc…that’s at the heart of what he doesn’t know. If it’s a word problem, you can start by having him draw a picture, then use language like “get more” (add), “take away” or “find out how much more” (subtract), find out “how many equal groups of something” (multiply), or “share or split up fairly” (divide). Using meaningful language can help a lot.

      If it’s a simpler problem of, say, “3×4” you can read it as “3 groups of 4”. The word “times” means nothing to a kid, and to them it’s just another set of facts to memorize after their addition facts. They don’t really understand what it’s for…so it’s hard to answer questions like, “Should you add? Multiply? Divide?”

  2. Michael Baum says:

    This is pure gold, Kelli. Wonderful, wonderful.
    I offered free math tutoring help to the nine-year old girl who visited us, along with her parents, in our home on two occasions — once in November and once in December. This family recently moved in next door to us, but the parents have not taken me up on my offer. If they ever do, I learned some things from your article that I can use. Thanks!

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