Teaching Math When You’re Not a Math Whiz (& When You Are)

a teen works with a ruler and pencil in a notebook
I could see the tears welling up in my eight year old’s eyes. We were on day three of trying to learn subtraction with borrowing, and we were getting nowhere fast. My frustration was boiling over, and his desire to learn was nonexistent by this point. We had reached a stalemate, and I had no clue to the next step.

Teaching kids brings its own challenges, but the most challenging aspect is when you have a learning mismatch. For example, you are trying to teach a math whiz when you’re math phobic. Or you are teaching a child who is struggling in math although math comes easily for you. Sometimes a teaching mismatch works well, but very often we struggle more when we can't empathize with our child's weakness or feel insecure about our own inadequacy with a topic.

Four Tips for Teaching Math When You’re Not a Math Whiz

The biggest concern I hear over homeschooling is “How will I teach my child math? I stink at math!

1. Shift Your Attitude

Math doesn’t make sense to everyone, but thinking negatively about math will not make it easier. Try positive affirmations. (They’re backed by science!) Think to yourself “I can learn math” or “I can improve at math.” If your kids think they stink at math, have them repeat affirmations as well.

2. Prepare

Before introducing a new math topic to your child, prepare for it. Read the lesson ahead of time and make sure you understand what you are doing. If not, look up additional resources. KhanAcademy.org is a great place for visual and auditory learners to pick up math skills. MathIsFun.com is another excellent resource for learning tricky math topics.

3. Ask for Help

If you don’t understand something or you cannot figure out the best way to teach a topic to your child, ask for help! There are online groups (on Facebook for example) with math whizzes who would love to walk your through a problem. If you know someone personally, ask them. Or get a math app that solves problems—with explanations—for you.

4. Select a Thorough Curriculum

Math-U-See, Saxon, Singapore Math, and Teaching Textbooks all provide thorough explanations of math topics and very often provide exact verbiage to use with your child. Each of them presents math in its own way, so you’ll need to pick the method that works best for you and your child.

Teaching Math When You’re Not a Math Whiz (& When You Are)

Five Tips for the Math Loving Adult Whose Child Struggles With Math

What if you are a math whiz but your child is not? This can also be a challenge. Often, when people find a subject easy for themselves, they have a harder time explaining it to others. When the other person is struggling, it can provide a challenging mismatch. The key is patience and a bit of innovation.

1. Take Your Time

Math is one topic that should not be rushed. The topics build on each other and without a solid base, the upper layers may crumble. Try not to rush through each section just because it’s simple for you.

2. Approach it from a New Angle

When I tried to teach subtraction with borrowing to my son, I failed to consider a different angle. We tried to shove our way through the material, but he wasn’t grasping the idea. When I finally found a new angle, it clicked for him. For math whizzes, new angles don’t always come easily. Luckily, Pinterest exists. Search on Pinterest for new ideas.

3. Let Someone Else Teach It

When you have a topic that you just cannot explain anymore and your child is still struggling, outsource. My first option is YouTube or KhanAcademy. There are videos for nearly every topic, and the people in the videos aren’t already frustrated.

4. Skip It for Now

There is no use pushing through material that a child doesn't understand.Once you get frustrated, you can bet your child is frustrated as well! Often time can help. And we know that the brain works on problems in the background, so leave the math alone for their brains to work through.

5. Ask Yourself Why?

When you are stuck on a topic with your child, ask why. Why do we borrow when subtracting? What does this look like in real world practice? This technique will help you get down to the most basic reasoning behind the math. If you can start from the most basic part, you can teach the concept to anyone.

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