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Helping parents move from ‘Not a math person’ to their child’s first math teacher

Jessica Banda
October 27, 2020

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Anyone who has tried to teach another person math is familiar with student math anxiety and the challenges it can introduce to the learning process. Sometimes math anxiety doesn’t come from the students, though -- or at least, not just the students. Sometimes family members have their own anxieties about math, which can interfere with their ability to support their students’ math learning or even transmit their own conviction about not being a “math person” to their young learner.

Fortunately, the keys to overcoming parental math anxiety are the same, if a bit less direct, as the keys to overcoming math anxiety in students: modeling a growth mindset and embracing multiple approaches to problem solving.

I am not a math person

I avoided teaching math early in my career because, growing up, I never felt like I was good at math. It didn’t come to me easily the way reading, writing, and other subjects did. As a younger teacher, I worried that meant I couldn’t teach it well, or that my own math anxiety would make its way into my students.

But a few years ago, it became unavoidable. I had to teach math and I knew that I had to change the way I was thinking about it. If one of my girls came to me and said she wasn’t good at math, I’d tell her she’s probably wrong, but if she tried to learn math with that attitude she’d eventually prove herself right. I knew that if I wanted my students to change their attitudes about math, I’d have to show them the way.

I thought, “Okay Jess, you need to learn how to like this for your girls, because they’re watching you. Ultimately, you don’t have to have all the right answers, but you do have to show them how to persevere and not quit when the answers aren’t easy.”

I see students’ families at different points along that same journey all the time now. They’re a lot quicker than their students at naming it, too. When parents aren’t comfortable with math, they’ll say to me, “I am not a math person,” but they are also eager to help their child have a different attitude about math. So the first step is just eliminating that vocabulary.

I have an article (or two or three!) I like to share with parents that walk through the mindset challenge, and it can be an eye-opening experience for a lot of folks. I don’t think enough of us ask ourselves, “Am I really not a math person? Am I really bad at understanding numbers, or was there a point in my life where I was afraid of being wrong and quit progressing?”

Modeling the math mindset

The articles are a good start, but what we really want parents to do -- and they don’t even have to be good at math for this -- is to model that mindset I had to talk myself into to teach math. One way I like to do this is indirect, but quite effective. Essentially, I get my students to model a growth mindset for their parents so they can pick up on what we’re doing and then model it for their kids.

One tool that we use in our classroom is ST Math. It uses spatial-temporal puzzles to introduce mathematical concepts. Students have to move a penguin, JiJi, from one side of the screen to the other. Each time they fail, they receive informative feedback so they can try something new on the next attempt.

To help my students organize their own thinking, I have them keep an ST Math journal where they write about different attempts and solutions. When they ask their parents for help, they have a record of all the different ways they’ve tried to solve a particular puzzle. Their parents see that we want their child thinking through a problem and trying a bunch of different approaches, and even getting it wrong over and over to learn from their mistakes.

Multiple paths to the right answer

In these days of Common Core State Standards and “new math,” there is a particular kind of anxiety around math, even among parents who might have been confident math learners themselves. “I’m good at math,” the thinking seems to go, “but I don’t understand the way it’s currently taught and, if I try to help my kid, I might teach them the wrong way to do it.”

What I’ve come to understand is that it doesn’t matter what method you teach a child if they are grasping the concepts underneath it. We want them to approach numbers from all different sides and angles to figure out how to solve any problem they encounter. The truth is, we probably are actually teaching children the same methods their parents learned to solve math problems, along with many others, but if they really are teaching them a different method, that’s a good thing. The more lenses a student has to look at a challenge through, the more likely they are to find a solution.

That’s a conversation I’ve had with many parents, but last spring when we were holding classes online because of the pandemic, some of our parents got to experience it firsthand in a more visceral way as the classroom came into their own living rooms and kitchens. During one of my mini lessons, there was a parent in the background and after I explained something, they said, “Oh that makes so much sense! Why didn’t I think of that?”

So I asked, “Well, how did you teach it?”

We wound up having a whole conversation about different ways to approach this math problem. I ended up handing over the conclusion of the lesson to this parent. They were a little freaked out about it, to be honest, but I said, “There’s more than one way to solve this problem.”

That’s the conversation we’ve been having with our math scholars, and that’s the conversation we need to have with parents who are unsure how best to support their students’ math learning.

Jessica Banda is a 3rd-grade dual-language teacher at Solar Preparatory School for Girls in the Dallas Independent School District, where she uses ST Math in her classroom. She can be reached at jesramirez@dallasisd.org

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