Preparing For Homeschool Math Success
One of the trickiest subjects to homeschool can be mathematics. Some children are anxious about math schoolwork. Struggling with math is something common among students, even those who are advanced in other subjects. There can be a convergence of difficulties: the book or curriculum is unclear, your child lacks adequate math foundations, or you yourself don’t know how to explain the concepts. This can be incredibly frustrating. Maybe you want to fling your math book out the window!
In this article we will review some principles to help you homeschool math with confidence!
Why Do Children Struggle with Math?
To understand how to succeed at homeschooling math, we must first understand why children struggle with it.
First, it helps to remember that we do not learn math in the same way we learn other subjects where there is a lot of language involved, such as history or literature. You cannot tell someone math and expect them to get it; math has to be done. We learn math not merely by having it explained to us, but by practicing it. It is a like doing mental calisthenics. We have to struggle with it, the way an athlete struggles to improve his physical performance. This is quite important because in our culture we tend to assume if we struggle with something we must be “no good” at it. A child who struggles with math may label themselves and believe, “I’m not good at math.” This kind of negative self-talk only compounds their difficulties.
However, thinking of math like exercise, allows us to approach it with a more wholesome mindset. It is similar to learning a foreign language: it requires a lot of trial and error. Students must hear, see, and try—there are many ways of experiencing math! So, be prepared for a struggle, but that’s okay. Embrace the struggle!
Another problem is that we tend to rush through the foundations of math. We are eager to make math as fun and easy as possible at the outset so the child will be excited about it. While this impulse is understandable, it can result in dumbing down the subject, leaving a child with an incomplete grasp of the foundations. The foundations of mathematical instruction need to be strong; a child needs to be a solid mental footing before she can be expected to take the next step. When children get tripped up, give them the time to analyze a problem. It’s okay if they make the wrong decision. This is how they fortify themselves in the foundations of whatever skill they are working on.
Therefore, we need to begin by getting into the right mindset!
What Home Environment Best Supports Math Learning?
After we have established the right mindset, we need to make sure our physical surroundings are conducive to math education. There are better or worse environments for learning math. The type of cognitive work math entails requires an environment of predictability. Children engage quicker and get engrossed in a topic faster when there is a predictable routine. The student has a dedicated study area for working on math that is not their bed or the dining room table (the table might be fine for watching an online class, but not when doing homework). It should be a quiet area set aside with no distractions—and this includes the distractions from music. Some children may say “I work better when listening to music,” but research shows that our brains don’t internalize information as well when there are other sensory distractions. Even if your child pouts, it is best to take away the ear buds while they are working on their math. Give their brains the silent space to process what they are doing.
Predictability also applies to time: Doing things at a scheduled time is important for learning, and it gets kids much more comfortable with the topic. Set a fixed time; “We’re going to do math every day from 10 to 11.” If your child has anxiety about math, making it happen at a predictable time and place helps a little bit to ease her worry.
What is the Best Math Program?
Ah yes, we wouldn’t be homeschoolers if we weren’t always on the lookout for the “best program.” Does it matter what math program your child uses? Is Saxon superior to Abeka, or are video lessons from Khan Academy useful? To a large degree, this depends on knowing what kind of learner your child is, how much math you already know, and what sort of instruction works best for your child. Our own star math instructor Jean Hoeft prefers Saxon Math, for various reasons: Saxon’s spiral method ensures that older material is constantly reviewed while new material is introduced, plus the various books all work together, reinforcing one another. But—like almost everything else about homeschooling—it all depends on the specific needs of you and your individual child. You will need to do some research, including learning the difference between various math curricula or joining online groups where you can conversate with other parents to see what they recommend. Knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of differing programs helps you make a more educated decision.
Math might not ever be “easy” for your student, but you can take positive steps to ensure the process of learning math is successful in the end. For more tips and guidance, check out our own Lisa Mladinich’s interview with Homeschool Connections‘ math instructor Jean Hoeft, “How to Succeed at Math in Your Homeschool,” on the Homeschooling Saints podcast (available on your favorit podcasting app). Jean reviews a lot of what we discussed above and goes into even greater depth. Take a listen here: