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CAN PARENTS HELP WITH MATHS?

You don't need to be a teacher or a mathematician before you can help your child with maths. Although you may not have any paper qualifications, you know your child far better than any teacher can and you have already taught her many important things. Remember, it was you, not the school, who helped her learn to speak and to feed herself.

But one of the biggest advantages you have is that you are not trying to help twenty or more other children at the same time. Close your eyes for a minute and imagine a maths lesson. The children are bent eagerly over their work while the teacher walks round giving a little extra explanation here, a slight encouragement there.

Come on! You can do better than that. Think back to your own school days and add a little realism. Suddenly the noise level in the classroom rises and two small boys at the back start to fight over a pencil. Several hands go up and their owners announce, "I've finished, I've finished." As the teacher rushes to find them extra work before their eager minds find more mischievous occupations, a book crashes to the floor, the pencil fight reaches a crescendo and a cry of "I feel sick" comes from a girl whose face has turned unnaturally pale. 

Now in the midst of all this activity, put one quiet girl. She holds her pencil but she doesn't write. There are numbers on the page in front of her. She doesn't understand what she's supposed to do and t she knows that if she tries to do the questions, she'll get them wrong. She hates getting things wrong. She hates numbers. She's sure there is no point in asking for help because she knows she's stupid. Her mental shutters come down and she stares out of the window.

Bearing in mind everything else that's happening, it's hardly surprising her teacher can't spend more than a short time with her: time for a brief explanation or a few words of encouragement but not long enough to undo the damage caused by weeks or months of failure. 

It's getting depressing, isn't it? Let's change the fantasy and imagine that same girl at home where she feels safe and secure. She's sitting at a table with her Dad. Just as before, she has a pen in her hand and a page of maths in front of her but this time the work is within her capabilities. Even so, she panics at first because she has failed so much in the past. But her Dad knows her well enough to recognise her fear. He reassures her that she can manage, works with her until she gains confidence and gently ensures that she gets each question right. A smile lights her face at the sight of a page of ticks and a gold star. 

That may sound too good to be true but it isn't: I've seen it happen. But don't get the wrong idea. It's not easy to combine the role of parent and teacher. In my experience, it's not easy to combine the role of parent with anything - parenting is hard work. Helping your child with maths will take time and effort but it is something you CAN do. 

"But maths has changed since I was at school"
Maths changes all the time as fresh discoveries add new bricks to the top of the tower of knowledge. Pythagoras may have been good with right angled triangles but he wouldn't have had a clue how to tackle integral calculus. In addition, fashions in teaching alter the range of topics taught at school: out goes formal geometry, in comes transformations and vectors.

But basic arithmetic or number work stays the same year after year. Two plus two is four whether you are counting dinosaurs or intergalactic space shuttles. The only important difference you will notice is the new emphasis on mental maths skills. This means your child will probably not learn about writing numbers in columns,  carrying and borrowing until she is older than you were when you met it for the first time. 

"But won't I increase the pressures on her if I try to help her at home?"
Your child's problems with maths come from trying to learn work which is too difficult. If you just give her more work which is too hard, you definitely will increase the pressure on her and confirm her feelings of failure.

But if you go back to the beginning and give her another chance to learn those vital basic skills properly, you will be helping her to succeed. Then numbers will make more sense and the pressure on her will lessen.

"But I get so cross with her when she doesn't understand."
Yelling at your child doesn't help her to learn. Neither does telling her to pull herself together, suggesting she stops being so stupid or drumming your fingers impatiently on the table - all of which are more likely to make her panic than make her work faster.

Patience is the number one virtue for parents and teachers but we're all human beings, not angels. I know only too well how easy it is to lose your temper when you watch your child struggle with an apparently easy question, especially if you have also had a bad day at work and the plumbing's gone wrong. But for your child's sake, it's much better if you can take a deep breath and deliberately speak quietly as you encourage her through this tricky patch. In other words - when you can't BE patient, you must try to ACT patient.

If you really have no patience at all and you're a bad actor, you may not be the best person to help your child with maths. Perhaps you could ask a friend or relative to help her instead. 

Diana Kimpton
adapted from 
A Parent's Guide to Helping with Maths  (Penguin 1995)


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