3 Tips for Becoming the Math Parent You Want to Be

I had the opportunity to talk about math on a recent episode of “Rad Parenting” hosted by author and parenting expert Anea Bogue and comedian and record label owner Joe Sib.

Math in the Common Core era is a hot button for many parents. So I was asked to speak about  how parents can best support the mathematical development of their children.

You can find the episode “Who Changed Math?!” here.

In our conversation, I referenced three tips to guide parents in their math conversations with their children, as well as several resources parents can use to support and guide their efforts. This post recaps those three tips and shares links to resources.

I hope it also starts a math conversation with parents. If you have questions about how best to support a child’s mathematical development, please ask me here. Anea and I hope to have a follow-up conversation on the podcast to answer questions from parents.

Tip 1: Be the Question Key, Not the Answer Key

Mathematics is as much about explaining reasoning and justifying arguments as it is about arriving at a precise answer. It’s natural for us to validate children when we hear them say the right answer. It’s equally natural for us to flinch when children offer us wrong answers. We need to withhold our verbal (and non-verbal) feedback to children until we hear their answer AND their thinking.

When a child offers an answer or a solution (right or wrong), invite them to explain how they got it with any of these (or similar) responses:

  • “Interesting. How did you get that?”
  • “Huh. I’m not convinced until you can explain to me (or show me) how you got that?”
  • “Can you get the same answer another way?”

Invite them to show you visually or physically if that’s helpful. Listen deeply to their thinking and how they’re making sense of problems. Above all else, resist your instinct to answer your child with a “Yes” or “No” every time they ask you “Is this right?”

It’s most useful if you do this practice when you know they got the right answer, not just when you suspect it’s wrong. Not only will it build their confidence, but it will lower the likelihood that they will dread the process of explanation.

If we want our children to be independent thinkers, they need to be able to communicate their reasoning and convince themselves and others why their answer is correct. So let’s make sure to validate their good thinking as much as we validate their right answers.

Tip 2: Be Playful

Play builds perseverance and hopefulness. And play, like math, is done in community. They are things we do together with others.

Play is difficult to define, but we know that it needs to be inviting and low-risk. Any “failure” experienced in (fair) play leads to more learning. Play always has structure and some freedom and the balance between the two leads to investigation. This investigation is what unlocks our imagination. (You can read/watch a speech given by Francis Su on this point here.)

Teaching through play in the classroom is really difficult to do, especially as students get older. Teachers are restricted by a standardized testing culture that focuses on answers. They are also challenged to balance and navigate the learning needs of 25-40 students every lesson.

They have a tough job. So do you as the parent. But you’re bettered positioned to help your student be playful and talk about math. More resources are below, but here are a few quick examples for playful conversations using math:

  • Be an estimating investigator with your child and invite them into estimation challenges with you. Ask them to think about numbers in context and reflect on variables that influence the outcome. They’ll develop a richer number sense. How many steps to the end of the block? How many seconds until the traffic light turns green? How many minutes until we get home? How many apple seeds will be in the apple core? How many pieces of Halloween candy in your bag? Andrew Stadel has created several images and videos you can use to launch your estimation conversations here.
  • Ask your child to count things and talk about different ways to count them. “How many tiles on the floor? How many flowers in the vase? How many donuts in the window?” Real life examples work best, but if you’re looking for some inspiring pictures to get you started, you can find them at Number Talk Images.
  • Math is about categories and definitions and eliminating ambiguity. Ask your child: “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” and see what happens. Offer counter-examples that challenge or push on their definitions. This conversations eventually leads to “What makes a sandwich a sandwich?” which requires the same type of thinking as “What makes a square a square?” Looking for another silly example? How about this one?

Be playful. Investigate the world with your child. Find numbers and shapes and talk about them. Explore definitions together.

Tip 3: Be Curious

This tip has two layers. The tips above invite you to already be curious. Being a “Question Key” means being curious about your child’s thinking. Being playful means being an investigator in the world around you and being playful with your child.

But there’s another layer: Be curious about how children learn math.

I know you’re busy beyond measure. You don’t have time to read the research about the political history of math education in America’s schools or about the research that supports creating a coherent, rigorous, and focused sequence of math content that all students from Kindergarten to 8th grade will learn regardless of where they live (which is what Common Core set out to do).

Check out the resources for “Learning More About Math” below.

Resources for Making Math Fun

Christopher Danielson runs a great website called “Talking Math With Your Kids” where you’ll find examples of conversations parents have with their children about numbers, measurement, algebra, shapes, and much more.

John Stevens has a website called “Table Talk Math.” He’s published a book by the same title which is well worth the read if you have time. If you don’t, he has some free resources you can explore, too. He’s also launching a “summer course” filled with bundles of activities that a collective group of parents can do with their children over the summer months when math skills and math thinking can erode. You can encourage school’s principal to sign up! (I don’t receive any financial benefit recommending this product or any product in this post. I recommend Table Talk Math because I believe in the quality of John’s work and the team of educators he has working with him.)

Which One Doesn’t Belong and Number Talk Images are two (of many) websites with free images that you can use to start conversations with your child. While the images are a good launching point, the real fun is when you start finding your own examples in the world around you and your child!

Resources for Learning More About Math

To understand more about the progression of mathematical ideas and content at the elementary school level, Graham Fletcher has created a series of short (7-10 minute) videos you can find here. They’re wonderfully rich and do an exceptional job of explaining how mathematical ideas build through the grade levels. If you’re wondering why students are learning more than just standard procedures, this is the resource for you. (Graham also has some great math activities you can do with your child as well.)

If you want to learn more about how to support your children in high school, Dan Meyer’s Ted Talk is a great video to understand more about the challenges facing educators (and their students) at the high school level.

If you want to do a deeper dive into Common Core math and sharpen your own math knowledge and how to provide a richer support for you child, check out Christopher Danielson’s Common Core Math for Parents book with videos. It’s well written, easy to follow, and has an inviting tone. (Disclosure: I do not receive any financial benefit recommending this product.)

You’ve Got Questions. Let’s Chat.

I’d love to hear more of your questions. How can I help? Please submit them in the comment section below. If you’ve found helpful resources that you’d like to share, please submit them too!

As mentioned above, Anea and I would like to do a follow-up podcast in the coming months to address some of your specific questions.

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