According to a 2007 study in the journal Developmental Psychology, math skills at entry to kindergarten are the strongest predictor of later school achievement, outperforming even reading skills and the ability to focus attention at indicating future academic success. Ongoing research continues to reaffirm that math skills are important to learning — and a glance at the occupational world that awaits the children when they grow up makes it clear that math and math-based skills have never been more important for a successful career in almost any field.
However, according to Sue Shellenbarger writing in the Wall Street Journal Online, US teens are trailing their global peers in math. The most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks the US 34th in terms of student math performance.
And part of the problem is the generational compounding nature of math failure. Being bad at math made many people hate the subject and develop what is termed a ‘math-phobia’. It is little surprise that when they are adults and have children of their own most are not only unable to help their children, but can instill in their offspring their own attitude towards math. Ben Crowder, publisher of MathFour.com, a website that advises on math teaching strategies, says that many parents are conveying a sense that math is daunting to their children. Saying ‘I’ve never been any good in math’ to your child makes the child think they probably can’t do math either.
Parents play a pivotal role in kids’ math attitudes and skills, starting in toddlerhood. Those who talk often to their youngsters about numbers, and explain spatial relationships in gestures and words, tend to instill better math skills at age 4, according to a long-term, in-home study of 44 preschoolers and their parents led by Susan C. Levine, a professor of psychology and comparative human development at the University of Chicago.
Kelly Mix, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University, says that even math-challenged parents can help their child by teaching them spatial skills early such as playing blocks with the child and teaching them to replicate your own stacks.
For more secure parents, math consultant Suzanne Sutton advises learning alongside your child. If a parent is obviously comfortable trying and failing, it will help the child persevere in the face of a difficult challenge. Additionally, one could hire the child to tutor you:
A parent asked Ms. Sutton years ago how to help her teenage son tackle a tough algebra course when she couldn’t even understand the syllabus. Ms. Sutton told her to pick the toughest topic and offer to pay her son for writing a report on it and teaching it to her. The mother picked logarithms.
When her son gave her only a superficial explanation, Ms. Sutton says, the mother told him, “You didn’t meet the terms of our agreement. I don’t understand what it means.” The teen dug deeper and tried again, and finally got the concept across to his mom, Ms. Sutton says.
While the financial motivation may not sit comfortably with all parents the end result was that the teen realized he had already mastered the toughest topic in the course and went on to excel in the rest of the class.
While positive motivation is fantastic when parents can provide it, children tend to do much better as soon as unconscious negative demotivation is removed from their initial encounters with math.