How to Help Diffuse Math Homework Angst

I recently spent way too much time on Facebook talking parents off the math homework ledge.  I'm sure you've see these posts from time to time - the ones where they post a picture of a math problem and ask, "Can you believe what they want my kid to do?"
How do you handle math homework difficulties?

Our scene opens with Johnny at the kitchen table.  It plays out something like this:

Johnny: Can you help me with this math? I don't get it.

Parent takes 3 or 4 or 12 deep breaths, looks at the problem, tries to sound calm but remembers their own math challenges as a kid. 

Parent: I don't know.  This isn't the way I learned math.  I can't believe they're asking you to do this! It's ridiculous. 

Johnny starts crying and Parent vows to call the school in the morning, complaining about these impossible problems.  Scene fades...

But wait! Before you make that phone call, here's why this teacher gives math homework...

What to do when they just don't get it.
Math homework is a way for the teacher to see what Johnny can do independently, as he practices a math concept. 
I've always let parents know that the math homework I send home is to either finish something we've done in class, or as practice to see who is independent with that skill or concept.

I assure students and parents that this homework should take no more than 20 minutes of their time - if they understand it.

Challenge: "I don't get it."
But what if Johnny is stumped? I want to know where he is getting stuck, beyond, "I don't get it." Students tend to throw out the entire problem, not thinking about what they do understand.

I'm not denying he's stuck, but this holds him accountable for thinking about the problem and analyzing where he's getting lost in the process. Being able to to verbalize what he knows, or thinks he knows, lets me figure out how to help him. This also builds self-confidence in his problem-solving abilities.

Clearing up some parent misconceptions... 

"Why don't they have a math book?"
Frankly, I've always preferred to not have one. The reason being, textbooks walk kids through every step of the problem, cutting out any trial-and-error discovery, and (generally) only showing one way to get a solution, when in actuality, there might be several approaches to a single solution.

Back in the day... (see how I refrained from saying "the olden days?") we were taught do this step first, then that step next, and maybe one more step until, voilĂ , you get your answer - and that's how the math magic happens. However, that "magic" is strictly algorithm-based.

Students need a lot of hands-on opportunities to develop a concrete understanding of what the manipulation of those numbers actually means. There needs to be time to let students explore and make connections to what they've already learned. It's the first step in learning a new math concept. To add to the problem, textbooks frequently skip that step, jumping straight into the algorithm.

"Whatever happened to the worksheets with story problems and timed tests?"
Rest assured, there are still problems to solve. The format looks a little different from story problems of old.  As an example, back in the day... (well, there I go again!) kids would have a worksheet of addition facts, followed by a page of story problems where they had to add, or occasionally subtract something to find the answer. The problems generally stayed true to the current math skill.

Now, "story problems" look more like problems adults might solve everyday, using the tools (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) in their math toolboxes. For example, you're planting a garden in a 10'x14' space. How much topsoil will you need? How much fencing do you need to surround the garden, keeping in mind there is a 4' gate on one end. Fencing is $4.50 per foot and the gate is $12.95, but on sale at 30% off.

I would consider this one problem with a central theme, something kids should be able to break apart to solve. Just look at all the different types of math that are included: area, perimeter, multiplication, subtraction, addition, and finding percentages.

Which brings me to timed tests...  
PEMDAS Bowling - a fun math challenge
The purpose of timed tests is to show students how quickly they can recall math facts.  I believe math games are a better way to practice math facts than timed tests.  Games, such as one of my favorites, PEMDAS Bowling, give students a purpose for using their facts. Quick recall improves with purposeful use of their facts, whether it's playing games or solving multi-step problems like the one above.

I tell my students, if they don't have quick recall of math facts, it slows them down. It's like needing a crutch when you have a sprain or a broken leg. The crutch helps you get around better, but ultimately, it slows you down. So please, use your crutch (a table, fingers, or a calculator) until you don't need it anymore. It takes a lot of pressure off of them and clears the way so we can get down to the business of problem solving.

"How can we help our kids with their math homework when we don't understand it ourselves?"
I suggest one of the reasons parents struggle helping their kids with math homework is because they did not get a chance to develop a concrete understanding of what those algorithms meant, when they learned it. This was and is especially true for spatial learners.  We are expecting kids to be able to explain what they're doing and why, thus creating a disconnect, when parents can't help.

Have you ever heard parents lament, "I was never good at math?"  It doesn't help their child to reinforce their uncertainty or fear of math. In fact, just the opposite happens. It gives kids permission to "not be good at math" because their parents weren't.

Just PLEASE don't ever let them know you'd rather have a root canal than figure out this homework with them. Instead, check out a possible solution to your dilemma, below.

Instead of commiserating over the futility of math homework, try this:

Sit down with your child, and ask questions such as, "What do we know about this problem that might help us solve it?"  Work along side him, talking about what might and might not work.

If he still doesn't understand, help him verbalize what he does understand and where he's getting stuck. Have him write that down to turn in. It's much more useful feedback for the teacher than a note from mom or dad saying, "We don't understand the homework." Before long, he'll be teaching you new math tricks.

Above all, please remember, these are our future engineers, scientists, architects, pilots, doctors, computer programers, builders, musicians and artists.  They are going to know and be able to do so much more than our generation, and will learn it much more quickly than we can, if they don't have the parent filter in their heads saying, "this is too hard."

Good luck! Be sure to check out some of my math games on the right, designed to give that all-important math practice! I leave you with one of my favorite quotes.

"Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you, mine are still greater." Albert Einstein