Today we are delighted to welcome Jessica Eaton to the Homeschool Compass to share her top tips for taking the stress out of homeschool math. Jessica has a bachelor’s degree in Math and a Masters in Education. She taught middle school and high school for ten years before leaving the classroom to find better ways to teach math. She loves helping her students experience math in a way that is laid back, fun, and not scary! She offers online and in-person homeschool math classes, math tutorials on YouTube, and private online tutoring at MindfullMentor.com.
As a homeschool math teacher, I have found that many homeschool parents I talk to don’t like math. It seems to be the subject that they dread teaching their children the most. But I have some good news! There are some strategies I use in my homeschool math classes to make learning and teaching math more enjoyable, and I’d like to share them with you!
1. Create a comfortable, relaxing, stress-free environment.
Because math already has a reputation for being difficult and boring, that’s the mindset many students have when they go into their math lessons. Creating a relaxed, laid back environment can help them approach lessons with a more open mindset and help them feel less anxious while learning math.
To create a relaxed environment in my classes and with my tutoring students, I love to play calming background music while we work. My favorite playlist is the Classroom Acoustic playlist on Spotify, which has a mixture of acoustic/instrumental versions of pop songs and some classical music. Playing songs without lyrics is often less distracting for students, but still gives a calming effect.
I also like working in a comfortable area, rather than sitting at a table or desk when possible. In my classes, we often sit on the floor or lay on a blanket outside when the weather is nice! It’s all about being comfortable so that you and your student go into the math lesson in a calm, open state of mind.
2. Only assign as many problems as needed for mastery.
When teaching a new concept, many math curriculums assign SO MANY practice problems in hopes of solidifying the material in their students’ minds. In my opinion, all this usually does is bore the student to death and give them one more reason to hate math. Trying to motivate children to complete these long assignments can start to feel like pulling teeth.
I prefer to have my students only do as many practice problems as they need to to show that they understand a concept, and then stop before they get to the point of exhaustion or frustration. Rather than doing 20 of the same type of problem no matter what, I have them do practice problems until they can get 3-5 of them correct in a row without any help at all from me or another student or their notes. I believe that when a student can do 3-5 of the same type of problem completely on their own, that demonstrates that they know what they’re doing. There’s no need for them to do 20 more just because that’s what’s in the book or on the worksheet. Quit while you’re ahead, while it’s still going well, and before your child starts to tire of doing the same thing over and over for no real reason. You can always come back and do more of that type of problem later to review the concept or refresh their memory.
3. Introduce, but don’t overuse academic vocabulary.
Part of what makes math intimidating is the vocabulary. There are many terms used in math that aren’t found anywhere else. Math can start to sound like a completely different language.
Obviously, knowing the academic vocabulary is important, but when it is overused and not explained clearly, it can cause students to shut down and make math seem scarier than other subjects. When I explain a new term, I try to reduce the intimidation by relating it to something the child already knows or coming up with a mnemonic device to help them remember and apply it. For example, when teaching types of angles, you can help your student remember that an acute angle is less than 90 degrees by saying that since it’s a smaller angle, it’s “a cute little angle.” This association can help your child remember the term and make sense of it.
4. If your child gets an answer wrong, acknowledge what they did right and then show them what they need to change.
When a student is learning something new, it requires a lot of effort. If they get an answer wrong, it feels discouraging and they may not want to keep trying. I believe this a big reason why many students dislike math.
When I’m teaching a class or working with students, I try my best to make sure they see that their effort is paying off. Even if they didn’t get the final answer exactly right, I try to point out a part of their thought process or work that was correct or close. Then I explain what happened that led them to the wrong answer.
For example, if we’re learning about adding and subtracting fractions and they get the final answer wrong, I may say, “You’re right. We do need to find the common denominator first! But the denominator that you got was off by a little bit. Let’s see how we can fix it.” This shows them that they started out great, and it was just a small mistake in their calculations that caused the final answer to be incorrect. Obviously this is just one example. Your approach will differ based on the situation and the problem they’re solving, but if you can practice looking for what your child did right, even if it’s something very small, I find that this encourages students to try again and fix their mistakes, rather than feeling defeated and giving up.
5. Explain the WHY behind a new concept as often as possible.
This one does require a little bit of preparation, but the payoff is worth it! If you can explain the reasoning behind a math concept your student is learning, rather than showing them the process and having them memorize the steps, it makes a huge difference in their learning.
First of all, it leads to better retention of the material. If at any point a child forgets what the next step is, they can use problem solving to help themselves remember it, rather than relying on rote memorization alone.
Second, knowing the reasoning behind a procedure tends to give students more buy-in. When they can see that the process they’re learning has a purpose, they’re much more likely to put forth the effort to learn it and do it well than they are if they’re just told to perform a series of steps without understanding why.
Finally, knowing the why behind a concept can help children begin to see that many of the ideas they learn are related to each other. Math is not just a random series of things they need to learn, but a part of how the world is ordered. Recognizing this can help with retention and buy-in even more.
6. Incorporate games and hands-on, tactile activities.
Some lessons are trickier than others to turn into a game or make hands-on, but the more you are able to do so, the better. When students can see and touch things that demonstrate the math concept they’re learning, they are often able to internalize the information better and gain a deeper connection to the material. For example, when teaching fractions, I like to use fraction pieces that show the different sizes of various fractions. This helps students make comparisons and visualize why a bigger denominator results in a smaller fraction. It can also help students understand how to add and subtract fractions because they can visually see what is happening when they perform these functions rather than just memorizing what steps to take.
Incorporating games into the lessons can be very helpful because it puts your child into the right mindset to enjoy math and feel at ease with it. I like to use the card game War when I can (for example, when comparing fractions and decimals, you can use index cards to make a deck of cards with different fractions and decimals on them and play war by seeing which player turns over the card with the greatest value). Matching Memory Games are another good option. You can use index cards to create your own cards and lay them face down in a rectangular pattern. Each player turns over 2 cards and works to make a pair of something while trying to remember which cards others have turned over.
7. Switch up what you’re doing every 10 – 20 minutes when possible.
Children have a very hard time paying attention to the same thing for a long period of time, especially if it’s not their favorite subject. I always plan my lessons so that we are switching things up every 10-20 minutes. For example, we might do the lesson instruction for 10 minutes, then do 10 minutes of practice problems, then 10 more minutes of instruction, then a partner activity for 10 minutes, then play a game for the last 15 minutes of class. I’ve noticed that doing this definitely helps keep students more focused and on task.
These are all strategies that I have found beneficial during my 10 years of teaching in the classroom and that I continue to use with my students in my in-person and online homeschool math classes as well as my private math tutoring students. I have seen the positive effects they have on my students, their learning, and their levels of confidence and happiness while learning math. I hope they can help do the same for your children!