Q: Often, my daughter Kristen, a third-grader, is taught math differently from the way I learned, so when she struggles, I show her my way. I never criticize her teacher's methods. I want her to love math, so I try to make sure that she understands what she's learning. Will I confuse her?
A: One of the beauties of math is that there's more than one way to approach a problem, and it's useful for kids to learn that early.
"Showing her another (way) will only enrich her learning," says Marilyn Burns, an author and one of the nation's top math educators.
You're wise not to criticize her teacher, says Burns.
"If your daughter ever seems confused about your approach, step back and confer with the teacher," she says. "Children do best when teachers and parents are partners. This doesn't happen enough with math."
How can you best support your daughter's math learning? Focus on mental math, says Burns, the founder of Math Solutions.
This refers to giving children exercises and problems to solve in their heads. Ideally, says Burns, "they are designed to review and advance essential basic skills. They help build number sense, convey the importance and relevance of math in our daily lives, and ground her learning."
Mental math is "a necessary skill," she adds, "but one teachers don't have enough class time to devote to."
Every day we add, subtract, multiply or divide mentally, notes Burns: "We figure how much time it takes to get to school, estimate the price of a sale item or double recipes by calculating in our heads."
With mental math, you put away the paper and pencil and present a problem. It might be an addition or multiplication problem presented as an estimation challenge.
"For example, give Kristen an addition problem with two two-digit numbers, say, 32 plus 54, and have her explain how she'll find the sum," says Burns. "To add challenge, have her figure out how much more is needed to make 100. This gives her practice manipulating numbers and develops her mathematical thinking to arrive at the answer in different ways."
Money presents great mental math opportunities, says Burns: "How can Kristen spend exactly $100 by buying two things with different prices? Three things with different prices? How could she spend exactly $100 by buying three things with different prices if one item costs $37?"
Always ask Kristen to explain her thinking, even when she gives correct answers.
"Explaining is important," says Burns. "Don't correct an incorrect answer immediately. Take time to question and let her explain. Kids often self-correct if given the chance. Never leave Kristen with a misconception, but don't rush to solve mental math problems for her."
Math play presents great opportunities to boost mental math skills, too.
"For example, building sophisticated structures with blocks promotes problem-solving and spatial skills," says Burns. "Math-related puzzles and riddles promote logic. KenKen puzzles get kids thinking about number relationships and using logic."
Everyday mental activities are extremely valuable, says Burns: "They boost skills and make classroom learning stick. They show Kristen how much math is a part of our lives."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)