General Tips for Parents

  • Developed by Tricia Bevans and Dev Sinha of the University of Oregon Department of Mathematics November 2014 For further information see: and

    1. Value all aspects of mathematical achievement.

      Recognize the value of your child’s understanding and being able to apply mathematics. Emphasizing understanding, skill and application all together can mean a number of things for parents. For example if you plan to supplement at home consider sites like Mathalicious, which produces interesting “real-world” projects at (middle and high-school levels), along with or instead of more skill-based sites such as the Khan Academy and IXL.

      The best way to promote understanding of mathematics is to discuss it. That’s what mathematicians do! If you are comfortable talking through mathematics with your child, that’s probably the best support you can give them. Even if you are not very comfortable with mathematics, having your child explain things to you is a fantastic way to spend your time. And while sometimes you and your child might not be able to complete every homework problem, have them explain what they do know, and try not to dwell on any problem so long as to get completely frustrated.

      Realize that it takes significant time on a topic to gain full proficiency. That’s because proficient students are being able to communicate their understanding, connect it to other topics, and apply it in a variety of real-world and mathematical contexts. When proficiency is only about procedural skill, some students can pick topics up quickly and race ahead. While there will always be students who like challenges beyond what most of their peers like, moving students quickly from one topic to the next is not something to advocate for.

    2. Value effort and process along with final results.

      Parents should be aware of research by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, and others about assumptions we must all make about learning, and their impact on learning. Google “Carol Dweck effect of praise” and “Khan learning myth”.

      To over-simplify, we may believe either that our abilities are fixed or that they can grow. Those who believe their abilities can grow with effort are more likely to put forth a full effort and learn. Small things we may do, such as praising children for being smart when they pick up something quickly, can ultimately undermine learning especially when it becomes more difficult. A strategy some teachers take is to say “That’s wonderful you’ve done that exercise; let’s we now find something more challenging so that you have a real opportunity to learn!”

      Realize that making mistakes is an important part of doing authentic mathematics. A follow-the- recipe approach to mathematics has meant that some students “get it all right” throughout their K-12 careers, but then are stumped when they get to college and the lecture or text does not cover every possible problem type. Moreover, in real-world application strict follow-the-recipe approaches rarely work in all cases without modification.

      Research shows that our brain grows most when we make mistakes and then implement strategies to resolve them. Encourage perseverance, and view mistakes as opportunities to learn. The student who understands their mistakes and uses those to see why something works as it does is well-positioned to retain and apply their knowledge.

    3. Be positive about mathematics.

      We may joke about how children do not listen to us, but they at least take cues from us. If your attitude is that it is OK that you “can’t do math”, then your child will likely think that should be OK for them too. In truth, very few people “can’t do math” just as very few people “can’t do language.” We all have the capacity to think logically and clearly, and use numbers and shapes in fruitful ways. On the other hand, realize that mathematics has a lot to it, even in elementary school. It took millennia for humankind to develop our current number system, which makes sophisticated use of multiplication - for example ten tens make one-hundred - to even write numbers down. (Indeed, some feel that if the Greeks had developed our numbers, science would be 1000 years further along.) Now we teach the basics of that sophisticated system to seven-year-olds.

      Recognize all of the mathematics you do in daily life, and use it as an opportunity to help your child learn. This may be your most effective way to reinforce learning, starting at an early age. You can ask how many more days until the end of the week/ month/ calendar year/ school year. If your child has an allowance, you can help him or her plan for a major purchase, reinforcing multiplication and division. Cooking provides endless opportunities to work with fractions. Which discount or deal is better? Your middle-schooler can and should help you figure it out. Discussing the financial side of planning for college with your high-schooler is not only a useful exercise mathematically but also conveys valuable messages about the importance of mathematics, of college, and of financial planning.

      See your child’s education as a part of their growth as a person, not a check-list to be disposed with on the way to better things. We teach children both meanings and methods of division of fractions for example to equip them better for adult life. If they learn deeply then they can use these ideas later — say as a nurse who catches a mistake in dosing, as a carpenter who scales up a plan accurately, as a calculus student learning the quotient rule, or as a web designer planning a page for a variety of devices.

      Finally please have patience, especially with your child’s teachers, as we learn together how to do so much better for our children. We are for the first time aiming for the kind of understanding which will fully prepare them for college and career. Those of us working on implementation – teachers, mathematicians and educators of all kinds – are very happy that children including our own are getting a chance to learn math in these ways. We hope and expect that as you understand the aims and the progress everyone is making, you will be happy as well.