Math can be a tough topic to tackle—even talking about math and math learning can provoke a spirited debate or induce anxiety, and that’s true for kids and adults alike. While math, itself, tends to be reliable and consistent (2+2 will always equal 4) mathematics learning is influenced by the attitudes, assumptions, and circumstances that surround it, just like any other subject. When you’re in need of a little perspective, whether to help your girl find an exciting new challenge or guide her through a particularly harrowing homework assignment, here are a few ideas that may help.

MATH IN REAL LIFE

Some people love math for math’s sake, but often—and especially in the midst of a challenging problem set or lesson—a familiar, frustrated refrain bubbles up: When will I ever need this? In truth, that’s a fair question. And it has a lot of good answers!

  • Every time a person asks How much? How many? How far? When? What's the difference between? or the infamous How much longer is it? there's likely an answer to be found by doing a bit of math.
  • Every athlete or fan uses math to understand scores and stats. Every great cook uses math to measure accurately, make larger or smaller amounts of a recipe, or adjust for conditions like time, temperature, or altitude. Saving and spending money, crafting and building, gardening, singing, or playing an instrument—all of these use math.
  • Every time a person takes a step, her mind figures how far to move her foot. Every time she catches a ball, her mind intuitively calculates how fast it's coming toward her and tells her when to put up your hands. Math classes aim to teach the concepts behind things a person's body and mind do naturally.

Context really is key, so when math feels just too abstract or disconnected from the world, help your girl think through some fun ways she would, indeed, use the skills and tools she's practicing.

MISTAKES AND MATH-TITUDE

Parents and kids, alike, may struggle with math anxiety. In fact, math anxiety is common enough that, since the early 1970s, researchers have dedicated a great deal of time and resources to understanding math anxiety and its impact on learning. One recent study, published in January 2018, found that a positive attitude is as strong a contributor to math success as IQ. And, throughout the research, parents’ attitudes about math and math learning are shown to influence their girls’ attitudes and achievement.

A lot of math anxiety can be attributed to perfectionism, a fear of making mistakes, and the unsettling feeling that sometimes comes when faced with something completely unfamiliar. To combat anxiety, remind your girl that math learning takes a lot of practice. Teachers look for progress and effort, for evidence that their students understand the concepts they are teaching, not for perfection. After all, it is possible to get the “right” answer to a problem without understanding how or why the answer is correct.

In some ways, learning math can feel like learning a foreign language. It puzzles you and prompts you to think in new ways, and that can be unsettling and uncomfortable. Remind your girl that with practice comes familiarity, and the more familiar something is, the less intimidating or confusing it will seem.

MORE ROOM FOR MATH PLAY

Ultimately, the some of the most important goals of math learning are number literacy, practical problem solving, and critical thinking. Introducing your girl to a variety of strategies, and helping her compare and contrast different approaches to the same problem, can help her develop both computational skills and conceptual understanding. From the more traditional models many of today’s adults learned in school (like borrowing, carrying, memorization, vertical multiplication, or long division) to multi-step models (like partitioning, compensating, base 10 blocks, lattice multiplication, or chunking), girls can benefit from a wide variety of problem-solving strategies, especially when some approaches demonstrate efficiency and others demonstrate process by expanding a problem to make the path toward a solution more readily visible.

Having so many options can feel overwhelming—and, without question, has been controversial in recent years—but engaging different math methods doesn’t have to be dry. In fact, some of the demo videos available online or through your girl’s school are entertaining and delightfully mesmerizing. Likewise, simple math games, like this math maze from School Rules! Math, provide an opportunity to have fun with numbers, solve problems using any strategy you’d like, and make extra practice easy as 1, 2, 3.