How To Help Your Kids Do Well In Math


by Rick Nau

A recent article in The New York Times had scary words for some parents who are trying to help their children with their math homework. Seems that if these parents suffer from “math anxiety” their children may end up doing worse in math than before. Or so a study of first and second graders published in Psychological Science indicates.

What’s math anxiety? It begins with this: You look over one of your children’s math homework problems, thinking you may be able to help, but you don’t have a clue about how to solve it. Then: Memories of your school days flood your mind. You’re sitting in math class, without the slightest idea of what’s going on, staring at a math test written in a bizarre language from an alien planet. Finally, the nightmare: You’re standing onstage in a play and don’t know your lines (which are also written in that bizarre, alien language). Except this isn’t a dream; and what’s worse, the audience is your son or daughter.

What now? Run screaming from the stage? Certainly not. Then what’s the answer? You know it already. You knew it when you helped your children learn to walk, to talk, to read, to spell, to tie their shoelaces, to throw a baseball, to swim, to plié, to play the trombone, to do a backflip, and a thousand other things. Never did you tell them it couldn’t be done. Never did you discourage them. You nurtured your children with a patient, loving, uncritical spirit that encouraged them to succeed, the same spirit you’re going to call upon to inspire them to succeed in math.

Good. Now that you’re in the spirit, it’s time for some basic instructions (which apply to all levels of math) on how to attack those pesky math problems. In order to avoid the irritating “his/her” problem, I’ll be using the word “children” throughout these instructions, though I’m obviously talking about working with one child at a time.


  • Locate The Target Assignment: This will be the latest math assignment.
  • Set The Goal: The goal is to teach your children how to do a target problem in this assignment.
  • Select The Target Problem: This will be one of the examples you’ll find in the text or in the teacher’s notes for the assignment, one that is meant to guide you through the problem in a step-by-step fashion until you arrive at the solution.
  • Teach Yourself: Do this alone, not while your children are watching. You’ll have to practice (in writing) until you can do the problem without looking at the solution guide (no peeking).
  • Prepare Yourself Mentally: Like the last step, do this alone. Remind yourself that you’ll need to be patient. It may take your children three or four tries before they can do a problem. It may take even more. However long it takes, assume that each time they redo the problem, it’s the first time. Never say anything about how long it’s taking. Also, be ready for questions such as “when will I ever use this?” or statements such as “I hate math”  or “that’s not how my teacher does it.” This is normal. When it happens, remember to react with your own good sense of humor and keep moving forward.
  • Demonstrate: Write the target problem on a clean sheet of paper and walk your children through it, answering their questions along the way. Use a step-by-step method. Never skip a step. 
  • Guide: Have your children recopy the problem and do it on their own (in writing). If they don’t understand a step, help them along until they can make it to the next step. Keep working on the problem until you get to the end. Do this again and again until it looks like they can solve the question without your help. Remember, this usually takes three or four tries.
  • Test: Recopy the problem and have your children do it one more time (no help from you; no looking at their previous work). If they get it right, you’re finished with this problem. If they don’t, practice some more and then test them on the problem again. Keep doing this until they pass the test.
  • Retest: Make up a similar problem (one with different numbers) and have them do it. Do this two or three times until you’re convinced they’ve got this type of problem down pat.
  • Counsel: Tell your children to meet with their teachers one-on-one, to do more problems with them (in writing), and to bring their written work home. Don’t be surprised if this doesn’t happen. You’ll have to keep the pressure on—not too much, but just enough to make it happen.
  • Contact: Get in touch with your children’s teachers (email is perfect for this) and ask them what you can do to help your children improve. Tell them you’d love them to spend some one-on-one time with your children and to let you know how the meetings went.
  • Network: If your children are at higher grade levels, it may be that you’ll want to bring in a tutor to help. Speak with the teacher and/or with other parents to see whom they recommend. Remember, you’re adding the tutor’s help to yours.
  • Encourage: Convey a positive attitude to your children. If progress seems to be slow, be patient. Eventually, everything will fall into place.


There you have it. Once you’ve begun the process, you’ll find you already know it. You use it every day to overcome life’s hurdles. When they arise, you work hard until you find ways to overcome them. Doing nothing is not an option. Such is the lesson you want to teach your children. This will require an investment of time on your part, but in the long run the reward will be tremendous.


If you’ve got questions or comments about helping your kids do well in math (or any other subject), feel free to drop me a line. I’ll be glad to help.

Contact Rick


About The Author: Rick has been working with students for over 20 years, helping  them achieve their highest potential in math, science and standardized tests (SAT, ACT & ISEE).

mathematicsRick Nau