You ARE A Math Person! Tear-Free Homework Help This School Year

As we get back into the swing of the new school year, there’s something very important I need to tell you–you are a math person. Or rather, you CAN be a math person, and even more to the point: what you say about math will impact your child for a very, very long time.

The way we talk about math to our children impacts the way they see themselves and their own ability to do math.

There’s a fairly new area of research related to brain growth and mathematics learning that tells us three really important things related to “being a math person.”:

  1. There is no such thing as a “math person.” Anyone, yes ANYONE can learn math.
  2. The way we talk about math to our children impacts the way they see themselves and their own ability to do math.
  3. Regardless of the math instruction children receive in school, parents can still impact the way students perceive their own math ability.

In 1986 two researchers found an important link between the way we talk to our children (especially our daughters) about math and their math achievement. Eccles and Jacobs found that when mothers told their daughters they were never very good at math, the child’s achievement in mathematics dropped almost immediately. Similar findings were reported by Maloney, Ramirez, Gunderson, Levine, & Beilock in 2015. This study found that the level of parents’ math anxiety–not their level of math knowledge–impacted their child’s achievement in math in grades 1 and 2.  But (and this is a big but), the negative impact only existed when parents with high levels of math anxiety tried to help their children with math homework. 


So what’s the take-away from all of this research? How does this impact the nightly math homework done around kitchen tables all across America? Let me suggest a few, basic tips.

1. Let them be.

It’s OK to let your child do their mathematics homework on their own. If you don’t think you can sit with your child while they work on their math homework without projecting your own math anxiety onto your child, just let them work. Maybe you will eventually get to the point where when your child is done you can ask them to show you what they were working on and be genuinely interested.

2. Embrace the struggle.

Struggle and mistakes in mathematics are an important part of learning how to do mathematics. When your child comes home with math homework they don’t know how to do, don’t panic! Great! They have a challenge–think how great they are going to feel when they overcome the challenge and figure out how to do the work! You’re not expected to problem solve and figure out the homework for your child.

Ask them what they want to try: could they draw a picture? Could they try to explain the problem another way? Can they think about what they did in math class that day and relate it to the homework? If the answer is no, no, no, then could they phone a friend? Can they email their teacher? Or go in before school for extra help?

3. Watch your words.

Try to keep in mind the messages you’re sending to your children. Saying things like “You’ll have to wait until your dad comes home to help you with your math homework,” or “Call grandpa for help–he’s an engineer,” just seem to reinforce the idea that math is for some people (males) and not for others. It is very unlikely that your child is bringing home mathematics homework that can only be done by an accountant, engineer, (insert other “math” career here).

Good luck mama! Remember, it’s only math. 🙂



Kate is the mom to Jack (2006), Liz (2007), and Alice (2011) and an avid Cubs fan through marriage. She's an assistant professor of mathematics and STEM education at St. Ambrose University and also moonlights as a mathematics teacher at South East Junior High in Iowa City. Between soccer, running club, tumbling, and piano lessons she likes to cook, run, and do yoga. She's also a sucker for 5Ks with cool swag and awesome medals.


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