While doing a math problem with my six-year-old recently during a classroom session for parents, I barked at her, “Just put the number in any circle.” She looked at me as if I was speaking a different language. Turns out, I was. Her teacher, who overheard the conversation, corrected me. The sum, she explained, goes in the top circle. Three circles form a pyramid and the bottom stack are for addition or subtraction while the top is for the total. I wrongly assumed order was insignificant.
For months, I had been baffled by “number bonds,” a way of expressing math in circles that my daughter had to complete for homework. I never bothered to ask the teacher how they work. Instead, I soldiered on, demoralized but thinking, ‘Surely, I can do first-grade math.’ I’m not alone in my confusion.
Parents across the country are trying to make sense of Common Core standards, a set of academic expectations that call for less focus on memorization and more focus on explaining how solutions were found and, in English, a deep probe of text. Advocates of the program argue that the skills are still the basic ones we learned as children, but in the new curricula developed around the standards, the questions are often presented differently. That often means homework, an age-old source of angst for many families, has gotten even more complicated. Parents, like myself, are trying to guide children through questions that make little sense to adults who were taught math using other methods.
Before you throw up your hands and walk away from homework—a recent study in Psychological Science found that math-anxious parents who help children on homework breed math-anxious children—experts say there are several strategies you can try that don’t require relearning arithmetic.
Don’t try to be a math guru
“The most important rule as a parent is to make sure it gets done. I may not have time to do an impromptu lesson on math, but I can make sure everything is completed,” said Jason Zimba, one of the three lead writers of Common Core’s math standards and founding partner of Student Achievement Partners, a group that helps teachers with the standards. “It’s about managing work load and learning accountability.”
Although the father of two gives his children, ages six and eight, math tutorials on Saturday mornings, he says a parent doesn’t have to be a numbers whiz when it comes to homework.
“The math instruction on the part of parents should be low. The teacher is there to explain the curriculum,” said Zimba.
Phoenix mom Kari Workman learned this recently when her fifth-grader was wrestling with a multi-step math problem and whining, “Oh, this is so hard.” As soon as Workman tried to look at the problem, her daughter snapped, “You won’t understand.” Mom called a time-out.
“She was so frustrated that listening to me was not going to happen, so I encouraged her to walk away from the assignment,” said Workman who is also a teacher. After a quick break, the 10-year-old returned in a calmer mood and solved the problem.
Talk to the teacher
Not all children will find solutions on their own, and if they are repeatedly stuck, that’s a sign they aren’t getting something in class, and it’s time to talk to the teacher, experts said.
“If they are struggling with homework, that warrants a deeper conversation,” said Denver teacher Lauren Fine. “Don’t wait for those parent-teacher conferences. Make sure you are in touch with the school.”
Another strategy, she said, is asking the child to teach you the concept.
“If you don’t know how to do it, ask your child to teach you, to show you how it’s done,” said Fine. Often, she said, the kids get it, but parents don’t.
“In the past, I might have sent home worksheets with 40 problems, now it’s a couple of problems and the student has to show multiple ways of how they solved the problem. That can be frustrating for parents because they just want them to get the answer,” said Fine.
The struggle seems to bubble in third grade, said experts, when the math becomes more sophisticated. “It’s when it looks more different. It’s not just counting beans,” said Bibb Hubbard, founder of Learning Heroes, a group for parents.
She acknowledged that watching children work through challenges can be tough for parents.
“The one thing we can reinforce as parents is that it’s ok for children to struggle. This is hard work. It takes time and patience,” said Hubbard. She likens it to learning how to tie your shoes. “It’s really painful to see them frustrated and angry. But I’m not going to tie their shoes anymore because they are 11.”
Teach what you know without stepping on toes
It’s ok, Fine added, for parents to show students how to solve problems using the ways they were taught in school—such as carrying numbers—as long as they are stressing that there are other ways to solve them.
Cece Hallisey, senior director of raisethebarparents.org, a site that outlines the new standards and offers resources on how to navigate them, has overheard her husband doing this with their daughters.
“There is nothing wrong with them learning in different ways, but I wouldn’t be stubborn about it. Parents can say, ‘Don’t be surprised if you learn it differently in school,’” said Hallisey.
And don’t bad mouth the teacher or assignment, teachers say. Instead, when time is scarce and tension is high, find resources for homework help.
“It’s about saying ‘If I can’t do the homework with them, who can?’” said Fine. Her school district, like many, offers before-school tutoring and the library has after-school homework help. Friends, family, babysitters, and neighbors are also good resources, as are websites such as bealearninghero.org, which breaks down standards by grade and subject.
Some schools are holding workshops that teach parents about the math and writing standards that students are learning in class. Zimba says schools should be better at educating parents on the standards and how to best guide students through them. “I think more can be done on the parts of schools, state leaders, and district leaders on communication,” he said.
In the meantime, he said, parents should take the lead.
“When parents are frustrated, it’s important that educators listen to them, but they can’t listen unless the parents talk to them,” said Zimba, adding, “Venting is one thing but if you really want to solve the problem the way to do that is to start with the child’s teacher.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.