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Support for Parents and Families: Helping your Math Students

Shaughnessy_52010by NCTM President J. Michael Shaughnessy
NCTM Summing Up, December 2010

Recently I’ve received a flurry of media requests from reporters about what to tell parents whose children ask for help with their mathematics schoolwork. Family members might ask, “What do I tell my child when I don’t remember ever seeing this type of mathematics when I was a student?” Or, “I was never good at math, so what can I do to help my child?” When I’m asked these questions, three things come to mind. (1) Remember, mathematics is important, and we can all do it. (2) Work together as a team with your child—don’t show how to do it. (3) Investigate the NCTM resources that can provide assistance when helping your children with their math work.                                                                                                                

First and foremost, I implore family members not to say, “I was never good at mathematics, either.” That response only widens the spread of our national mathematical cultural disease—that it’s acceptable not to be good at math. (See President’s Message, October 5 Summing Up, for more about this malady). There is no such thing as a math gene. That is both a myth and an excuse. Doing math just takes perseverance and a positive attitude, but everyone can enjoy success with mathematics.

It is also important that as parents, family members, and adult mentors, we thank our students for asking for our help with their math work. This provides us with a golden opportunity to point out how important mathematics is in our lives—that it is essential in building structural and technological tools; empowers new discoveries in the physical, biological, and social sciences; and is also extraordinarily beautiful, as seen in the visual, spatial, and musical arts.

Second, I encourage family members to ask their students to share what they know about the particular math problem at hand. One good strategy is to ask, “Tell me what the problem is, and help me understand how you are thinking about it. What do you think we need to do?” This can buy a panicky parent a bit of time to get his or her thoughts together, and it also puts parents and children on a level playing field and quickly gets them working together as a team. This is a strategy that math tutors can also use effectively, to get a student talking about a problem and sharing what he or she already knows. Often, in the process of talking it through, a student will figure out what is needed, or the next step to take. Students always know more than they think they know—and often more than they will admit to knowing. If you do know the answer, or how to proceed, then ask more questions and try to help the students figure it out for themselves. Never give away how to do the problem. Doing that disenfranchises students. If instead we help them figure out how to proceed, then we empower them, and their mathematical confidence grows. Remember, it’s about them, not about us, when they ask for help.

Finally, I heartily recommend a visit to the Family Resources page at NCTM’s Web site. Featured resources include A Family’s Guide: Fostering Your Child’s Success in School Mathematics; Involving Families in Mathematics Education; and Figure This: Math Challenges for Families. Resources at the site also point to mathematics in children’s literature. The Family’s Guide includes questions that parents can ask their children and their teachers about the math that they are studying, as well as information about NCTM’s Content and Process Standards. In addition, the site offers a collection of one-page responses to frequently asked questions. FigureThis is a set of 80 mathematics problems and challenges for families to investigate and enjoy. Originally created for middle school students, many of these problems are appropriate for a wide range of students, from grades 5–10, and beyond.

The Six DO’s for Families and Their Math Students 

  1. Be positive
  2. Link mathematics with daily life
  3. Make mathematics fun
  4. Learn about mathematics-related careers
  5. Have high expectations for your students
  6. Support homework—don’t do it!

As we approach the holidays and the New Year, I wish all NCTM members, mathematics teachers, students, and families around the globe the very best of mathematical years to come—and let’s not hesitate to add peace for all. Forgive me for taking a small liberty with one of our holiday songs—May your students be merry and bright, and all your math solutions be right. 


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