If you have a kid who doesn’t like math, it can feel like a black hole that sucks away all the joy of school. Even as they’re happily writing stories, building 3d models, or observing changes in the natural world, there’s that nagging voice (maybe yours) saying, “Don’t forget your math worksheets.”
It’s not just the kids. For many homeschool-curious parents, math will present that seemingly insurmountable obstacle: Parents who feel good about teaching elementary school math can’t imagine how they can guide their child through high-school level mathematical concepts.
Those who don’t gravitate towards numbers tell themselves a lot of narratives to justify why: “I’m just not a ‘math person’”, “I don’t find it relevant”, “it’s too confusing”, or “I have better things to do.”
Your child likely has their own version of this narrative swirling around their brain. Whether they’re bored of answering endless streams of straightforward math questions, unclear about “when are we ever gonna use this?” or panicked by isosceles triangles, start by figuring out why they aren’t interested in math.
Here are some of the most common attitudes towards math — and steps to take to incorporate a hands-on math education into your homeschool routine.
Before diving into understanding your child’s relationship to math, think for a minute about your own impressions. If math conjures up images of that crowded blackboard in A Beautiful Mind, it might help to reframe it in a more down-to-earth way: number sense,
“a person’s ability to understand, relate, and connect numbers.”
Number sense is all about how numbers are part of everyday life: activities like estimating, doing mental calculations, visualizing numbers, and breaking larger numbers down into smaller ones.
Building number sense in young children can be as simple as having them draw pictures of numbers, divide up ten Legos into groups, or estimate how long it will take for water to boil. But there’s no reason why you can’t incorporate similar activities with older children as well, especially with those who feel that they are “bad” at math.
For an outdoorsy kid, a fun way to build number sense can be identifying geometric shapes in nature. For siblings worried about fairness, learning division can happen every time there’s a treat to share or a dishwasher to empty.
When we think in terms of number sense, math concepts become less intimidating, and more like foundational skills such as literacy, creativity or critical thinking. It becomes easier to incorporate math into other learning experiences, whether you’re doing subtraction at the grocery store or estimating jelly beans for a friendly neighborhood competition.
To get your child on the road to developing a healthy relationship to math, you’ll want to drill down a little deeper into where the problem lies.
The first thing to confirm is that they’re at an appropriate level, neither being pushed ahead beyond their competence or not being challenged enough. Flexibility is one of the greatest advantages of homeschooling, so figure out the last level where your child felt comfortable (we like the MAP assessment) — and don’t worry about whether that corresponds to where they “should” be for their age.
Even if they are behind their supposed grade right now, we find students are more likely to experience leaps in knowledge when they go at their own pace, rather than marching along with the school calendar.
Once you know your child’s level, you can peel back a layer of the onion to understand how they are feeling specifically about math and why.
The next piece to this puzzle is understanding what kind of learner your child is, when it comes to math.
Some kids want direct instruction on mathematical skills with step-by-step examples; they feel a need to practice on worksheets or drill with flashcards before they’d even want to play math games.
Some kids will be more inclined to roll up their sleeves if they’re presented with opportunities to solve real world math problems.
And other kids want to get their hands on physical materials, like manipulatives, to learn abstract concepts kinesthetically.
While we always view our math learning through a real-world lens, at Prisma we offer our learners different kinds of instruction, including problem-solving workshops and direct math instruction.
One thing we do see across the board, however, is that kids benefit from the camaraderie of learning math with their peers — both in terms of the added brain-power and new perspectives that their friends bring, and in terms of the support they get from one another when they encounter (and overcome!) obstacles. Try signing up for a local math club or reach out to other homeschool families to see if you can pool your math efforts.
Although researchers haven’t determined whether poor performance in math causes math anxiety or vice versa, the phenomenon is real — with physiological responses running alongside the mental reaction. You can’t do logical thinking if your brain is hijacked by anxiety, so for these kids, take the pressure off completely. Make math fun with board games Monopoly, the strategy game mancala, or a classic tile-based game of dominoes.
If smoke starts coming out of your child’s ears the minute the numbers don’t seem to add up, math can easily turn into the dreaded moment of the day. For these kids, math can be a great opportunity to practice a growth mindset: progress not perfection. This starts from teaching multiple strategies to solve any problem — when they grasp that there are countless roads to every solution, they can think of their math skills as a toolkit to which they continuously add.
If your child is so passionate about another activity that they don’t seem to have a minute to spare for math, that’s when an interdisciplinary, project-based approach can open up a backdoor. Help them access relevant mathematical concepts through their interests, whether it’s understanding fractions and ratios for cooking or developing budgeting skills as they launch their business.
In our math checkpoints at the end of every math mission (essentially a “unit”), Prisma learners complete a performance task — such as using geometry to plan a garden bed — that helps them understand how the math they just learned is applicable in real professions and/or in real life.
Being “interested” in math can mean so many things: but the first step is making sure that their “disinterest” doesn’t get in the way of their passions. Then, once they get a foothold, they can venture farther afield into less familiar areas of number sense.
When math is accessible, relevant and just the right amount of challenging, the chances a kid will develop an interest (if not a full-blossomed love of math) increase exponentially.
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