What does math problem-solving typically look like for your child? No matter how accomplished a student is, most parents have seen frustration firsthand when working with a child who “gets stuck” completing a problem. As educators, we’re often asked, what’s the right way to respond?
The “Helping” Problem
Often, in the interest of seeing children succeed or relieving their frustration, parents jump to the rescue and do the thinking for them. But is that the best approach? Consider that by telling children what strategy or tools to use, you’re removing the challenge for your child and inadvertently interfering with the learning process.
It’s true that letting kids struggle productively isn’t easy for parents, but it does help children as they build math knowledge and master independent problem solving. So how does this work in everyday life? Put simply: Give children opportunities to grapple with mathematical concepts, and refrain from trying to save them from discomfort.
What to Do Instead
Think about a child who loves sports. You can take your child to a basketball game to watch a superstar’s technique for making a foul shot, but you and your kids know it’s the hours spent shooting free throws that actually hone those skills. In other words, no one else can take the shot for them.
Similarly, giving children the answer or precise path to find the solution to a homework problem deprives them of the chance to make sense of the math they are studying. It is entirely natural—and helpful—for students to struggle a bit and take time to figure out a problem and solution. That’s part of the learning process.
We tend to seek and expect immediate success, but that would just let us know that a student can complete a task with little effort. The real learning happens when children are forced to think deeply, make connections to prior knowledge, and use tools strategically to solve a challenging problem that promotes reasoning and perseverance.
By learning to tackle issues and come up with a solution themselves, students develop persistence and resilience. It’s like when children play a board game repeatedly. They know they won’t finish in first place every time, and they expect struggle and even failure to be part of the process. Over time, they also find that they learn and refine strategies as well and get better as they play.
So, when working with your child, consider this advice:
- Try stepping away to attending to your own work or a household task and then return to check on their progress.
- If they truly are stuck and spinning their wheels, support can be useful. But be sure to provide it for them in a way that keeps them thinking and reasoning.
- Consider pushing your child’s thinking by asking questions rather than leading them step by step to the answer. For example, ask them what they already know about the problem and what they wish they knew so that they could make progress in solving it. Chances are you’ll help them get “unstuck” without stopping them from learning along the way.
This is a challenging time for kids and parents alike, and we can all relate to wanting to comfort and support children. But let’s be sure to do so in ways that lead to long-term benefits, not short-term wins that, in the end, won’t sustain their success with key subjects like mathematics.
Tricia Miller has worked as an elementary math teacher, instructional coach, and district math supervisor. She is an active member and past president of the Louisiana affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. She has two children and two grandchildren.
Nell McAnelly is the co-director emeritus of the Cain Center for STEM Literacy at LSU. She is on the board of Great Minds, which provides curricula to schools. She has two children and six grandchildren.