In the past few weeks, we have all become good at new ways of working remotely, including teaching. However, it is likely that some areas of teaching have been harder than others.
My research has demonstrated that parents may have unexpected issues with maths: some are nervous of being wrong in front of their children; others believe that as long as the correct answer is written down, it doesn’t matter how – even if the parent has to do it themselves.
Others do not understand some of the terms or techniques their children are learning and the majority report arguments with their children over maths.
While these issues are all valid, there are some things teachers can do to offset them. Here are eight tips to help parents feel more comfortable helping with maths at home.
1. Remember that parents may be nervous
Lots of parents have had bad experiences of maths, ranging from being humiliated because they couldn’t answer questions to being told they wouldn’t make anything of their lives because they don’t have a maths qualification. Many never want to do maths again.
In fact, lots of them do use maths in their lives. Present maths in a way that incorporates this knowledge and you can give parents the confidence to start helping. Bills, shopping lists, budgets, holiday costs can all normalise maths to parents while teaching skills to pupils.
2. Help them to understand terminology
We use specific terminology, and often, this will have changed since parents were at school. I encountered parents who didn’t understand the term “number line”, for example. So make sure that when you use any term, you explain it or give an example every time.
3. Help them understand why you are using that method
Parents often used a different method in school from the one you are teaching. If their child gets stuck, they try to teach their own method, resulting in confusion all round.
An early activity could be for the parent and child to explain to each other the methods they use and compare the advantages of each. As a school, it is useful to send out examples of the methods you use and why.
4. Help them to understand the aim of the work
Parents often think that the aim of work is for the child to get all the answers right. This even leads to some parents giving their child the answers so that homework can be completed “properly”!
Make sure parents know that you are expecting children to get things wrong and that this is all part of learning.
5. Coach them on how to teach
Parents are not going to become teachers overnight, but a few techniques will help. Encourage them to leave their child alone to work and help out only when they are stuck.
They should then ask questions to prompt the child towards the answers rather than solve the problem themselves.
6. Help them understand why their child can’t do it
Parents in my study who were good at maths themselves often didn’t understand why their child didn’t get it.
Remind them that their child is still learning and it is OK for them not to understand. They will get there in time, as long as everyone is patient.
7. Realise that there will be arguments
Every parent I spoke to shared the common experience of arguments with children over maths. Bear in mind that how children react to you in a classroom is not how they react to their parents. Think about this when setting work.
8. Tell them about fight, flight and freeze
You might have heard about the fight-flight-freeze response to danger, but did you know it happens when learning maths, too?
Many parents don’t know that when their child is shouting at them (fight), running away (flight) or refusing to speak (freeze), they are often demonstrating their anxiety about the work. Encourage parents to back off at this stage and come back to it when everyone has calmed down.
At its best, this time will promote a better partnership between parents and schools around maths. With these eight tips, you can help parents to see that you understand their difficulties and support them so they can support you.
Katie Baker is a researcher at the Centre for Global Learning: Education and Attainment at Coventry University and a primary school mathematics teacher. She works in the field of mathematical resilience and parental engagement and tweets @edukatemaths.
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