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Coping with the “New Math” and 4 Helpful Homework Tips

Having been an elementary teacher, I often get asked school related questions. One of the most frequent questions sounds something like this:

How am I supposed to help my child with his math homework when I don’t get it myself?

Love it, hate it, or completely confused by it, this “new math” is here and waiting for you in your child’s backpack. I am not here to make you love it. I’m not here to tell you to hate it. Hopefully, however, I can provide some insightful pointers to guide you to a clearer understanding of the math that goes on in your child’s classroom.

There is a lot of professional educational research out there on best instructional practices, effective math instruction, or strategies for assessment. You name it, it’s out there (trust me, I had to read it in graduate school!). My goal today is not to jam facts and figures down your throat; rather, it is to lessen the stress that unfolds when that backpack is unzipped.

I’ve chosen a few questions to address that I hear most often:

What is the need for this “new math” anyway when the way I learned was just fine?

When my parents were in school, teachers smacked their hands (or worse) with rulers (or worse) if they misbehaved, answered a question wrong, or talked out of turn. When I was in school, I read from the same reading anthology (textbook) as every other kid in my class. For some of my classmates the stories were too easy, for me they were too hard. It didn’t matter, we had to read it (or pretend to). Thankfully, these things don’t (or shouldn’t) happen anymore because now we know better. We understand corporal punishment is not effective, nor appropriate, discipline. We understand that not every child reads at the same level, so we provide a lot more books in the classroom.

My first year teaching, one of my coworkers was about 20 years my senior. When she was in college she learned to put film on a projector. When I was in college, I learned to make iMovies and webpages. Times change. The world kids are in today is different from the world we grew up in. We wouldn’t buy a floppy disk for our kid to take to school. We would question a textbook that still has Pluto listed as a planet. When my grandpa went to school, he had no concept of a computer engineer or stem cell researcher, for example. Just as the world has evolved, and other professions have evolved and improved, so has teaching.

This “new math” is here because of those two reasons. Due to research, educators now know better how kids learn. Over time, they’ve developed different strategies and methods to improve how kids learn and how teachers teach.

Why does my child need to know so many different ways to add, subtract, etc.?

Recently, I purchased a couple goodies from a gas station. My bill was $10.52. I gave the cashier (a teenager) a twenty, which he quickly punched into the register and started counting out change. As he was doing this, I found two pennies and told him to take them. That poor kid just stared at me, not knowing how to properly exchange the change without using the register.

As a kid, I could never do homework with my mom. She thinks linear, in formulas and in black and white. I am very abstract. I need tangents, pictures, and a lot of space to discuss the “gray area.” The way our brains work to figure out a problem were (and still are) very different. Neither of us was wrong because, for example, we both know that 10 +21 = 31. We just had different ways of arriving at the answer.

These two examples are reasons why teachers model many methods for solving problems. For one, it helps students learn patterns and number families (different ways to make 10, etc.), as well as shows value in numbers (713= 700 +10 +3) so they can reason problems mentally without needing a pencil and paper or calculator, like the cashier in my first story. Secondly, just like my mom and me, kids think differently from one another. Having options helps them to pick which one works best for them. When first learning, it may be tedious and time consuming, but your child will eventually pick a strategy that works best for her and it will become pretty automatic. (Similar to your child dressing herself. At first it takes a long time and she needs a lot of help; eventually, she doesn’t need you at all.)

student examples of multiplication problems

3 different students solving the same multiplication problem. Each student used a different method, yet each solved the problems correctly.

What resources can I can use?

  • Your teacher: Ask him for materials, tutorials, resources. Your first stop should be your child’s teacher as he directly works with your child.
  • Your district: Check their website, mailers, and handouts. They often provide links, tips, and even the standards and benchmarks for each grade level.
  • YouTube: I’ve found great videos here. Especially since it’s visual, it can be a great resource for your child as well. There are a lot of dud videos, too, so you need to spend a little time digging through.
  • NCTM Family Resources: I refer to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) as the gurus of math instruction. This is an awesome link for learning more about math today and finding ways to help. Seriously, check it out!

Is this “new math” perfect?

While the focus on real-world problem-solving and authentic learning is highly encouraging, the short answer to this question is “no.” Your child’s instruction is directly related to the teacher. As teachers are still learners themselves, good districts provide research-based professional development for their teachers to be the best possible math teachers. While you, as a parent, cannot directly control the curriculum your district chooses, the professional development they provide, or the guidelines and expectations placed on the teachers in your school, you can be a voice. Attend PTO meetings. Communicate regularly with your child’s teachers. Get to know the administrators in the building. Partnering in your child’s learning is better for you, better for the teacher, and, most importantly, better for your child.

Whether math or other, here are some tips when helping your children with their homework:

helpful homework tips

  1. Be POSITIVE: Your child may be struggling or frustrated with his homework, but stay positive. Negatively acknowledging that he doesn’t understand by making statements such as, “You’re not smart enough for this,” or, “Do you do all your work wrong at school, too?” will only add to your child’s frustration. Stay positive. Be encouraging and do your best to coach through mistakes. If your child still is doing something wrong, leave it unfinished and make a note to the teacher.
  2. When in doubt, ASK the teacher. If you and your child don’t understand how to do the assignment, ask. Your teacher is more than willing to help. Many parents tend to do their child’s homework for them, or show them “their” way to do the problem. While it is hard not to revert to this, please resist. Homework should be independently completed by the student. So ask, ask, ask!
  3. Establish a nightly ROUTINE for completing homework. Just like adults, children need downtime to re-energize and refocus. Whether your routine is homework before play or play-eat-homework, stick to it. Kids thrive on routine, and routine will help ease anxiety as they know what to expect.
  4. Set a TIME limit. I understand that all teachers vary on their philosophy of homework. Similar, different grade levels require a different amount of independent work. A good rule of thumb (supported by research) is 10 MINUTES x GRADE. So if your child is in fourth grade, his nightly homework should be around 40 minutes. Ask your teacher about his or her philosophy on homework. This will allow you to better support it at home.

What is your biggest struggle with homework? How has a teacher or school been helpful in aiding your questions? Please share your helpful tips in the comments below.

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