In 5th grade, your child’s academic strengths and weaknesses will come to light as the curriculum picks up speed in math, language arts, science, and social studies. It’s the year parents may review their child’s homework and wonder whether they themselves attended school in a different universe.

In language arts, kids are reading books of all kinds and writing in-depth reports. In social studies, they’re creating timelines and reading maps. In science, they’re conducting experiments and constructing models. But the real toughie for legions of 5th graders is math: fractions, percents, probability, statistics, and geometry all come into play.

More than anything, 5th grade is about the child taking control of her education, seeking help when she gets lost, and having the confidence to reach for more. This is also the time when distractions in the form of activities and a busy social life may keep your child from putting her best effort into her schoolwork.

“In 5th grade, you have to have a healthy balance,” says Kim Bearden, a language arts teacher and cofounder of the Ron Clark Academy, a private school and teacher training center in Atlanta.

Structured Homework Time

Kids need structure, but they also need the space to guide their own learning. For parents, providing the structure, especially for homework, is essential. Students often have more homework in 5th grade than in the past and less motivation to sit at the table and get it done.

“Kids need a designated study hour,” Bearden says. Even if your child doesn’t have an hour’s worth of homework, he can spend that time reading, reviewing notes, or studying for an upcoming test.

Children who have a hard time concentrating for long periods might be helped by breaking the hour into 15-minute chunks. Between chunks, the child can play outside, talk on the phone, or relax for a few minutes. Bearden recommends using a kitchen timer to stay on track.

At this age, parents need not sit side by side with their child during homework time, although some children will need more oversight than others.

Language Arts

In language arts, kids will be reading more difficult books, often encountering difficult vocabulary words. They’ll identify the stages of plot development, from exposition to resolution, and they’ll be expected to move easily from biography to fiction to poetry.

Parents can support their child by reading along with them and discussing the book’s character and plot. “A child needs to be reading every night,” Bearden says. “If you’re reading the same book, that’s a great way to open dialogue. The parent can engage in casual conversation.”

Parents might also opt to read a book of their own choosing while their child is reading. By seeing his parents modeling good reading habits, your child will be more likely to develop a love of books.

Fifth grade involves a lot of writing, with an emphasis on content, style, structure, usage, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. Parents can help by using standard English at home and gently correcting their child’s grammar, Bearden says. “If parents use incorrect grammar, kids are getting the wrong answer drilled into their heads.”

Mathematics

Even as reading and writing expectations increase, the most intimidating subject for parents and students is often math. Jill Drake, an associate professor of math education at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, Ga., and a former elementary school teacher, says that parents aren’t imagining things if they think their child’s math homework appears harder than when they were in school.

“Students are learning things at a younger age,” Drake says, adding that geometry concepts now introduced in 5th grade used to appear in high school textbooks. Math curricula vary by state, but many 5th graders will be introduced to the symbol pi (∏) at this age and taught how it relates to circles and circumference.

The biggest change is that current math lessons are increasingly becoming more about applying concepts to solve problems than about just getting to the right answer. “Math is not necessary more complicated,” she says. “It’s put into a word problem, and that is more of an application....We memorized algorithms, but we didn’t know why they worked.”

Because math education is in the midst of this shift, teachers are trained to help fill in the gaps for kids who may have missed concepts in earlier grades, Drake explains. Still, parents should keep a close eye on their child’s math progress to make sure he’s not falling behind. As the curriculum has increased in rigor, there is less time to review skills taught in earlier grades, she says. “If you don’t master it at different checkpoints, you could get lost.”

Drake recommends contacting the child’s teacher if he’s falling behind rather than trying to take full responsibility for filling in the gaps. The parent and teacher can work together to develop a plan for getting the child back on track.

Parents can also help by having a positive attitude about the schoolwork in general and resisting the temptation to groan at the sight of an obtuse triangle or story diagram. Your child may be overwhelmed by the amount and nature of the work in 5th grade, but seeing his parents stay calm and confident about his abilities will reassure him that he’s going to do just fine.

For more information, read “5th Grade Social Changes: What To Expect”

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.