Maths: How can you help?

Maths is perceived to be a difficult subject and it is a fact that it causes much anxiety among children as well as parents. Maths is also believed to be the key to success and although it is the key to access in certain fields of study, this emphasis causes undue pressure on children to achieve. There is no single cause for maths anxiety. There are many contributing factors. It is a real fear and is the response set off by the thought of doing maths. Studies which have been done indicate that 9 to 11 is a critical age for the development of attitudes and emotional responses to maths. Negative attitudes are very difficult to change and may persist even to adult life. We must, therefore, aim as parents and educators to avoid these attitudes and to develop self-confidence. We must aim to make each boy as conversant with maths as possible and to achieve his full potential in the subject.

In order to do this, we need to look at 5 main areas.

A. Attitude

At an early age children are influenced by the attitudes and values of their parents and we often don't realise the effects that our comments and remarks have on them.

Firstly, it is vital to have a positive attitude to the school so that your son can be proud of his school. Positive attitudes bring positive actions.

Secondly, be positive about your son's teachers. It is important for each child to develop a good relationship with his teacher and this is impossible if he hears negative comments from his parents. A child tends to work well and be enthusiastic about a subject if he likes the teacher. There will be times that you will feel unhappy about a teacher. Please see the teacher concerned so that it can be amicably solved. Help your child to like his teacher.

Thirdly, have a positive attitude to maths. Very often a well meant remark can have the opposite effect.

1. Never say:
"Come on, answer quickly...
Come on, it's easy...
Maths is important...
I struggled with maths myself...
Your mother couldn't do maths either...
Never mind, lots of people don't like/can't do maths...
No that's wrong!"

2. Rather say:
"It's easy to make a mistake when you're in a hurry...
If you try to do too much mentally, you can easily make mistakes...
If you write it in this way, it is difficult to understand....
Try writing it step by step; that way you will find your mistake easily....
Your answer is wrong, let's go back and see if we can find the mistake."

3. Accept that children develop at different rates and ultimately this has no real implications on their future abilities. One only has to think of some of our top sportsmen. Parental anxiety, however, can have them doubting and worrying about their abilities and exert undue pressure.

4. Each child thinks in his own unique fashion. Never compare a child with his siblings or with other children.

5. Children and adults who think slowly are not less able. You can, however, make them believe that they are by transmitting negative messages.

6. Remember that just as we are not perfect parents, so our children are not perfect. In is natural to deal with situations incorrectly but it is necessary to learn from that.

B. Homework

There seems to be a misconception that maths is a subject that you can either do or not. Maths is much like playing a musical instrument, the more you practise, the better your level of playing. Maths needs to be practised and things such as bonds and tables need to be learned. To ensure regular practice, maths homework is essential.

1. Homework time needs to be organised and structured. Ensure that your son has an uncluttered place to work, even if this is the kitchen table while you are cooking. Don't allow him to listen to rap music or watch TV while he is doing his homework.

2. Encourage a regular "homework time" to ensure that work is not done hurriedly in the car on the way to school. Make sure that this is a good time for your son. While some may prefer a time slot before supper, others may work well just after supper.

3. Ideally the homework should have been written in the homework book, but as this does not always happen, check the maths exercise book. Corrections must be done on a regular basis. If there appears to be no homework, encourage some mathematical activity, perhaps learning bonds and tables with younger children.

4. Try to ensure that this time is as stress free as possible. Remember what your role as the parent is, namely to provide interested and loving support and help where it is needed. Let him take responsibility for his work and encourage him to become independent. Don't allow this homework time to become frustrating for you.

5. It is very difficult not to interfere when you can see a better way of doing a task or project. Don't do his work for him, as you are not helping in the long run. Rather brainstorm with him before he starts and then let him decide how he wants to complete the work. In that way he will learn an incredible amount, which is after all the point of the exercise.

6. If your son is struggling to do a maths problem, think of what the sum is asking him to do and then ask questions that will lead him to discover the solution for himself, rather than to merely explain to him how to do it. These are the types of questions you can ask:

"Explain to me what the problem says?
Draw the problem...
Will a list help? 
Explain to me what you have done so far.
Is there another way to do it?
Write down the numbers that you can use...
What other operation can you try?
Is your answer a realistic one?"

7. Don't be afraid that the method you are using is not correct. We encourage the boys to explore as many methods as possible. Just encourage logical presentation and correct use of equal signs. A correct answer is what we obviously want, but we need to encourage the boys to think of the problem as something that they need to prove.

8. Very often maths homework can be a cause for friction. Children sometimes don't want to accept help from their parents. If you are getting nowhere and your son is battling with his maths homework, write a note to the teacher and let the teacher give the guidance.

C. Test results

Tests are necessary for diagnostic and evaluation purposes. Remember that not all tests are used for mark report purposes. How you react to and deal with the results is important and here we get back to the positive attitude.

1. Try to see a poor result as a learning experience. Although the teacher would have done so already, make sure that your son understands where he went wrong and corrects his mistakes. If you are concerned, contact the teacher concerned.

2. Try not to show your disappointment. Sometimes a poor performance must be seen in context - what were the criteria - what did he find difficult about the test - did the whole class perform poorly?

3. Don't tell your son that a poor result "doesn't matter". I t does matter to him. Be positive but honest. Sit down together and try to analyse what went wrong.

4. At the end of the day, marks are very relative and whilst we encourage our children to achieve, don't let your son become obsessed with marks. Avoid comparison with classmates. Teachers often have situations where children are only prepared to do something well if it "counts for marks".

5. Responding to a good result is also important. Praise but do not reward your son with gifts for doing something clever. He should want to do well because it gives him satisfaction and not because he wants to win your love and approval.

D. Maths in everyday situations

1. Try not to fall into the trap of "setting maths problems" out of context simply for your son to solve, unless of course he requests it. He will resent having to do maths for you. If you feel he needs extra work, contact the teacher.

2. Try to use everyday incidental situations as they arise for maths consolidation.

Recipes--doubling and halving the recipe. For younger children, the actual measuring is an excellent activity.

Woodwork. Fathers who do woodwork or any type of handywork should encourage their son to "help".

Laying tiles, bricks. This type of activity is an excellent spatial exercise.

Paying bills. Anything to do with working out an account and actual budgeting. Children need to experience how a household budget works.

Estimating the shopping bill and comparing prices at the supermarket.

Working out the tip at the restaurant.

Car number plates can be used for a variety of activities--counting in even, odd numbers--testing bonds and tables--finding multiples, square numbers etc.

Try to see maths as part of life, not a subject which is done in an exercise book. That is only a means to an end. Remember that children love to solve things.

E. Games

1. Computers have a place and children learn many skills from them, but be careful of the type of computer game that you child may be spending considerable time playing. There is so much exciting maths software in game form which is a better alternative.

2. Spatial (constructional) activities form the basis for all mathematical development at all ages and it this very development that is being neglected. It is important for children to climb trees and build tree houses and make mud pies. This all contributes to their spatial development.

3. Encourage playing with building blocks, playing in the sandpit and bath with containers, cutting and pasting, Lego, Mecchano. Building model planes, kites and origami are all constructive, spatial activities.

4. Puzzle books with mazes, codes, etc may not appear to mathematical in nature but all help to develop logical thinking.

5. There are also a variety of family games available which are a fun alternative to watching TV. To mention a few--Mastermind, Rumicub, card games, Monopoly.