Can parents help with math homework? YES

My wife and I both spend time working with our kids on their homework. We have also made a family tradition of “Saturday School,” a routine that my wife and I instituted a couple of years ago because our kids’ school was using a pre-Common Core math curriculum that wasn’t keeping pace with the standards. It has become a weekly exercise for the whole family’s brain. On my personal blog, I’ve shared some of the math problems that I’d written for Saturday School so that other parents could use the problems at home if they wished.

On busy nights, most parents (including me) are hard-pressed to find time to help with daily homework. That’s why my first piece of advice for parents is that they help strengthen their children’s work ethic and accountability by ensuring that homework is completed. My kids have their own dedicated space at home for schoolwork. When they get home from school, the next day’s homework has to be complete and correct before there is any screen time or other activities.

Parents can also help at home with skill building and fluency practice—things like memorizing basic math facts. When it comes to skills, practice is essential. It helps students to have someone to flash the cards or pose calculations to them. I have made flashcards that we use at home, and my kids sometimes use digital apps like Math Drills.

If you’re surprised to hear me recommending flashcards, it’s likely because the Common Core has been mischaracterized as “a move away from all of that.” However, according to the Common Core, students are expected to know their sums and products from memory and to be fluent with the standard algorithm for each of the four basic operations (the traditional “carry” method, in the case of addition). These expectations are unlikely to be met without extensive practice. Parents should never feel that they are doing something wrong by doing math at home.

Sometimes I make up math games for my kids. After Christmas, we were all bored during a long drive, so we played a doubling game. My younger daughter went first by doubling small numbers: 2, 4, 8, 16. Since she doesn’t yet know multi-digit multiplication, and she’s still working on two-digit addition, there was a limit to how high she could go. When she got as far as she could, my elder daughter took over. When she got as far as she could, my wife went next. (I went last, because I have lots of powers of two memorized.) I’m also known to make “Dad jokes” about math. Why were 10 and 11 mad after the race? Because 20 won!

Parents can and should be involved with their children’s learning at home; this includes being involved with homework when they have time. When I look over my kids’ shoulders and see an error on their homework, I ask them to do the problem again. If everything is correct, I select a problem and ask them to tell me how they got the answer. If a question is left blank, then I pull up a chair and we talk about it. A useful conversation starter is, “Tell me what you know so far about this problem.” If it’s a word problem, we might act it out; if it’s a computation, we might warm up with a simpler version of the problem.

What if a parent is unsure about what a homework assignment is asking the student to do? For example, an assignment might use terms that were defined in class and that are specific to the textbook in use. Faced with an assignment that isn’t immediately clear, I try to model persistence and productive struggle to my kids. The underlying message I want to send is, “We can figure this out if we keep at it”—not, “If you aren’t sure, just quit and wait for an authority figure to tell you what to do.”

If I still have questions about what an assignment is asking for, I ask the teacher about it. Parents might try asking the child to help write the question to the teacher. Then let the child know that you are eager to hear what the teacher has to say.

Some readers may have seen online articles suggesting that my advice to parents is not to help their children with math homework. Nothing could be further from my belief. Home can and should be a place where children strengthen their skills and learn to enjoy mathematics. I don’t always have as much time or energy to participate in my kids’ learning as I would wish, but I consider it one of many important jobs that I have as a parent. I hope some of the ideas I’ve provided here will be helpful to other parents as well. 

Jason Zimba was a lead writer of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and is a founding partner of Student Achievement Partners.