Bigger Kids

Fear of math

If you shudder at the prospect of helping your kids tackle their times tables, take heart. Not only can you do it, you can even have some fun

By Dafna Izenberg
Fear of math

One of the most memorable things I learned in high school came not from a teacher or a textbook, but from a poster in a classroom. It said: “Dropping math? Say goodbye to 82 jobs.” Having decided many years earlier that there are two kinds of people in the world — those who can do math and those who can’t — my first thought was: “Well, I guess it’s goodbye, then.”

That probably sounds familiar to Donna Doerksen, a Burnaby, BC, mom of two who, as a teenager, ruled out a career in medicine because she was a “failure” in math. Still, there was no getting away from the M-word when her daughter Zoë ran into learning difficulties back in grade three. Suddenly, the sworn mathphobe had to dive back into a sea of numbers.

Doerksen is hardly alone: According to a poll, more than 60 percent of parents admitted they are sometimes afraid of their kids’ math homework. But experts shun the notion that there are people who just can’t do math. They say all kids — and parents — have a head for polynomials and Pythagorean theorum. It’s a matter of getting over your fear and getting excited about math. Read on for some ways to do just that.

Math begins at home

You’re actually already doing tons of math with your kids. Ever sing “The Wheels on the Bus” or do the hokey-pokey? With all the repetition in those songs, you’ve covered patterning — the beginning of algebra. Spend much time with jigsaw puzzles or playing Go Fish? That’s early geometry and numeration. And kids see you doing math all the time, whether you’re parallel parking, doubling a recipe or figuring out how long it will take to get them from school to soccer. Look at you — you’re a mathematical role model.

Ontario-based Esso Family Math, a program that parents and kids attend together, suggests capitalizing on these moments to heighten kids’ awareness of math. “We give language that is useful for math,” says Mary Trottier, a trainer with the program. “Yes, it is a ball, but we can also call it a sphere.” Similarly, a road pylon is a cone, a roll of wrapping paper is a tube and, if you want to get a little fancier, that shoebox is also a polyhedron.

Getting playful with math will also help your kids feel more positive about it. When George Gadanidis, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Western Ontario in London, polled teachers about their own favourite math activities, most of them identified things they had done as children with their families. “One of them said, ‘I still get excited when I can make 10,’” he recalls. “She was thinking of a time when she was in the car with her family and they would use any kind of mathematical operation to make 10 from the numbers on the licence plates they passed.”

Math ops are everywhere: You can count the number of sidewalk blocks from your house to the park, make a geometric pattern with Cheerios or figure out how many days are left until everyone’s birthdays. Last summer, Doerksen’s daughter Zoë, now 13, asked her mom for a “math fact” as she bounced up and down on a trampoline. “So I said, ‘Nine times six!’ and she said, ‘54!’” says Doerksen. “Then she said, ‘Give me another one!’”

A beautiful math

Did you realize that a square is a rectangle — and also a rhombus, a parallelogram and a quadrilateral? This surprised me, which is probably why Gadanidis pointed it out. He’s always looking for “math stories” that will engage people the same way a good book or scary movie does. To that end, he has started an annual Math Performance Festival, inviting students from across Canada to submit pictures, poems, plays and songs depicting a math concept. Among last year’s entries was Little Quad’s Quest, a shadow-puppet play about a sad shape who happily discovers (spoiler alert!) his calling as a kite.

It’s an idea you can adapt at home. Got a guitar? Tackle the properties of a polygon in a silly song. Fond of stories? Spin a yarn about a generous circle (circles have the most area in a given perimeter). Kathy O’Regan, whose grade-four class at Gordon B. Attersley Public School in Oshawa, Ont., produced Little Quad’s Quest, explains how her students assigned “personalities” to the shapes in their play. “They took their cue from what kids traditionally think of diamonds, as kind of glittery,” she says. “So that shape was female, and she was going to be in chandeliers.”

And there are heaps of children’s books that make math both mischiev-ous and mysterious. Check out Counting on Frank, in which a young boy calculates how long it would take to accidentally knock enough peas off his dinner plate that they reached as high as the tabletop. Or The Village of Round and Square Houses, in which an ancient volcano eruption in an African village determines the shapes of people’s homes.

The nitty-gritty

Fun and games aside, there will, of course, be times when kids simply have to sit down with paper and pencil. The good news is most kids want to do this — so long as they can feel successful. To help make that happen, it’s important for parents to know what their kids know — and what they don’t know — so as not to get ahead of them, says John Mighton, who created the educational program JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies). “You need to constantly keep them in the zone where they are challenged but not afraid,” says Mighton. “If you continue with the same skill, but keep making it look harder, kids universally respond to that.” He gives an example: “A child who can read numbers in the hundreds can read numbers of any size. Take 270 billion. Cover up the number, and let her read just 270. Then move your hand and let her read the next part, and the next. Kids go crazy for reading long numbers.”

OK, but what about when they bring home the stuff you struggled with yourself, like negative fractions or square roots? Remember: “Can’t do math” is a myth. You just need a bit of confidence — and maybe a refresher course. While giving a talk in BC, Mighton met a dad who was “terrified” that his school-aged daughter was already surpassing his math knowledge. Mighton suggested that he work his way through some JUMP exercise books. “He phoned us the other day and said, ‘I’m in grade four!’”

Whether it’s through programs such as JUMP or Family Math, or just by studying your child’s textbook, have faith that you can figure it out. Doerksen, who is a former elementary school teacher, turned to JUMP to help Zoë, and ultimately became a JUMP instructor herself. She says she has had middle-of-the-night epiphanies figuring out how to teach a new concept. “I have made some math discoveries that are tiny, but make me feel like a math genius,” says Doerksen. “I’ve taught a couple of them to my daughter, and she’s seen me just jump for joy.” What a long way — or should I say distance — she’s come from feeling like a math failure.

This article was originally published on Jan 05, 2009

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