More than any other subject, math tends to make parents nervous. If you struggled with it as a child, it’s understandable that you might be uneasy when your child asks for help on math assignments. And even if you were a math whiz, well, naturally schools have gone and changed how they teach it so it’s not at all how you remember it.

The good news is, you don’t have to be strong in math to support your child. All you need is time, patience, and strategy.

How Kids Learn Math

From a young age, children learn about numbers, shapes, and symmetry through exploration and play. You can help your child make sense of new discoveries: See whether she can solve problems using information she has gathered; then, ask her to explain how she reached her solution.

For example, your child can gather rocks by a stream or shells at the beach. Have her line them up, count them, and place them in order from largest to smallest. Divide them into two groups. Which group has more than the other? Which has fewer? Likewise, have her count the apple slices on her plate. After she eats two, have her count the remaining slices. How many are left?

Children learn when they connect math to their own experiences. Common household objects such as rulers and measuring cups can help kids make those connections. In the early years, helping your child be successful in math is about providing experiences that allow her to get comfortable with math before she even knows what it is.

At school, your child will learn math in a systematic way. Math curricula vary by state and district. Generally, your child will spend her elementary and middle school years learning about numbers, measurement, geometry, algebra, and probability.

It’s important for children to learn each concept as it is taught because each new skill builds on previous skills. “The foundation is so critical,” says Richard Fisher, a math teacher in San Jose, Calif., and author of the series Mastering Essential Math Skills. “Whole numbers, fractions, and decimals...the kids have got to be able to apply these skills in real-life applications....With a weak foundation, even a bright, gifted child will get stuck. ”

How Parents Can Help

You can help your child establish that foundation. Early on, you can gauge her comfort with math. Does she do her homework by herself with ease? Or does she need to be reminded to do it? Does she retain what she learns and apply it to the next concept? Or does she need to go back and review concepts? The answers to these questions will help you determine your role. Some kids don’t need a lot of help from parents. Others need support.

The most important thing you can do is have a positive attitude. If you hated math as a child, don’t mention it; if you emphasize your own struggles with math, your child might assume that she is destined to struggle herself. Or she might think that because Dad turned out OK, math is unimportant.

Instead, focus on ways you use math. If you are going to do half a load of laundry and for a full load you use half an ounce of detergent, how much detergent do you need? If you have a coupon for 20 percent off at a shoe store, how much will a pair of $25 shoes cost after the discount?

Try to make math a fun part of everyday life. If you go to your local state park, look over the trail map. If it takes about 20 minutes to walk a mile, how long will it take to walk the trail that is two and three-quarter miles?

“Whole numbers, fractions, decimals, geometry, problem-solving...you can apply these concepts to everything you see,” Fisher says.

These exercises give you an opportunity to look for gaps in important skills. If your child can’t figure out an abstract problem, check to see whether she can do more straightforward problems. The goal is to find gaps when they are isolated and narrow. “When kids get behind a little in 3rd grade, it snowballs as they get older,” Fisher says. “The way to bypass tears and frustration is to catch gaps and close them.”

Parents can help with automatic recall, those math facts such as multiplication tables that are essential as math gets more complicated. If your 2nd grader is taking forever to complete a worksheet of two-digit addition, the problem might be that he doesn’t know single-digit facts by heart. You can help by calling out to him as you’re driving to school: What’s five plus five? Four plus six? Three plus seven? If he’s counting on his fingers or taking time to think about it, he doesn’t have that automatic recall yet.

A major issue with math is whether parents should learn the method of instruction the teacher uses or help their child using the method they were taught in school. Judith A. Muschla, a veteran math teacher in New Jersey and coauthor of several teacher guides, has a practical recommendation. “If the teacher is showing a specific procedure, the parent should explain the process via the teacher’s method,” she says. “If the teacher has presented a word problem or an open-ended question, the parent should feel free to share his method with his child. A parent should always encourage his child to try various strategies as this is a way to foster creative thinking and problem-solving.”

When To Be Concerned

It’s normal to worry if your child gets average or poor grades in math, spends a long time on math homework, or declares that she hates math.

Talk to your child’s teacher to find out the root cause of her struggle. Come up with a plan to help her get on track. This may include after-school tutoring by the teacher, a designated time each night to work on math with a parent, and a concerted effort to integrate math into her life through cooking, gardening, dance, sports, or other activities she enjoys.

Allow time for the plan to work. If, after several months, your child has not improved, it’s time for a new plan. Talk to your child’s teacher about the possibility of testing for a learning disability. If your child has a learning disability, she can get accommodations in the classroom, such as extra time on tests. This may allow her to relax during testing and get better grades.

Work with your teacher to identify ways for your child to find success, such as an alternate assignment that allows your child to express what he knows in a format he’s comfortable with. For example, some kids are good at writing narratives describing how they solved a math problem. Once your child experiences success, you can build on that feeling of accomplishment.

“If your child has a negative attitude, try to turn it around,” Fisher says. “What I try to do is allow kids to see progress, and through that become passionate to learn math.”

Continue working with your child’s teacher to find the right approach for your child. “If it’s a struggle night after night,” Fisher says, “it’s not going to get better until you change course.”

Whether math comes naturally to your child or is a source of frustration, it’s important to remain involved and upbeat. It’s also important to work in partnership with your child’s teacher, making sure she is learning the concepts she needs to build a solid foundation and reach her full potential.


Trouble With Math

What can you do when your child has problems with math? Here are three children with different problems and expert Judith Muschla’s recommendations for the parents. Muschla taught math for 25 years in New Jersey and conducts workshops for teachers and parents. With her husband, she has coauthored many books on math, including two volumes of Hands-on Math Projects With Real-Life Applications, for grades 3 through 5 and grades 6 through 12.

Situation 1

Jenna generally grasps math concepts, but she drags her feet at homework time, feeling overwhelmed with the repetition and unmotivated to strive for her best.

Parent response: First determine whether Jenna is bored with repetition or instead has gaps in her knowledge. Ask the teacher for input. Does Jenna need to be placed in a more challenging class? Or does she need extra help to learn critical skills? Search the Internet for interactive math games Jenna might enjoy.

Situation 2

John is able to understand math concepts taught at school, but he needs a lot of help and reinforcement at home to keep up.

Parent response: Provide help and reinforcement at home. Re-explain what the teacher said in class. Support John, but don’t do the work for him. Think of your role as tutor, providing support or help as needed.

Situation 3

Jesse just plain struggles in math and always has. As he gets older, it just gets harder. Evenings can be long for Jesse and his parents, as well as for siblings who want help with their own homework. Everyone is worn out and frustrated.

Parent response: Establish a time and place to work. Don’t wait until late in the evening when everyone is tired. Budget a set amount of time to spend on math. As you work with Jesse, try to identify whether he has difficulty with the skill being presented now or with skills he should have already mastered. Review and reteach, remembering that it’s impossible to move forward if the foundation isn’t there. Consult with the teacher for specific activities that would support what Jesse is doing in class.

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.