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Kids’ math skills have taken a hit during the pandemic – here’s how parents can help

Families can incorporate math and mathematical thinking into activities such as cooking and baking.  (Shutterstock)
Families can incorporate math and mathematical thinking into activities such as cooking and baking. (Shutterstock)
By Michelle Hurst</p><p>and Susan Levine Special to the Washington Post

Even as more children across the United States head back to in-person school – some for the first time in nearly a year – hybrid and virtual models mean that in many cases, kids are doing at least some of their learning at home. The extended break from full-time in-person learning has left many parents worried about how the coronavirus pandemic has affected their children’s education, and what they can do to help bridge learning gaps. As developmental psychologists who study early math learning and how families can support it, we have also been thinking about these challenges.

Although bedtime stories – an important way to support reading development – are a ritual in many homes, math learning is typically not part of routines. Parents see math as the responsibility of schools, much more so than literacy. Also, many parents back away from math because of their own negative feelings about the subject. As a result, math engagement in the home is relatively infrequent, and it varies markedly across families.

It is not surprising then that children’s math learning is taking a particularly big hit because of the pandemic. In fact, recent studies indicate that the “COVID Slide” is more severe in math than in reading.

Fortunately, there are many ways families can include math in their daily routines to help counter some of that pandemic-related math learning loss, much like they include story time to support their children’s language and literacy skills. Here are some ways to incorporate math in your child’s life at home.

Exposure to math in the home during the preschool years helps children arrive at kindergarten with a strong foundation. Try incorporating math into everyday routines such as setting the table, cleaning up and cooking. There are also math learning opportunities in card or board games, or in reading picture books with lots of things to count and shapes and patterns to talk about.

Jigsaw puzzles and blocks can also bolster math skills by building children’s spatial thinking. In all of these contexts, talking about math increases children’s skills. Extend the conversations by asking children questions such as “How should we divide the pizza so it is fair?” or “How did you get your answer?” By asking questions and giving hints, rather than immediately providing the answer, parents can help children actively engage in math thinking.

Supporting the math learning of school-age children can be a bit trickier. Parents sometimes go overboard in their well-meaning homework help, which can backfire by damaging kids’ confidence. It’s more effective to start by asking the child to explain the problem, as explaining sometimes leads to them solving it. Or suggest doing some research, using the resources on the internet to learn together. Productive struggle, with support and guidance, can be more helpful than solving the problem for your child.

As with younger children, there are plenty of opportunities to engage school-age children in math beyond homework. Incorporating math into everyday activities, such as measuring fractional amounts while baking or graphing the family’s ice cream preferences, engages children in a low-stakes, nonstressful way.

But what if your child announces they don’t like math? Try pointing out that activities the child does like – art, blocks, cooking, shopping, games, sports – are related to math, which may lead the child to think about the subject more broadly and feel more positive about it.

There are also pitfalls to avoid. No matter how you feel, don’t make the all too common pronouncement, “I’m not a math person.” This kind of statement tells kids that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who are math people and those who are not, and that there is not much that can be done about it. Even saying things that seem benign, like “You’re good at math,” can inadvertently create the idea that you either can do math or you can’t. Instead, praise effort with statements such as, “Good job on that problem,” to help children develop a growth mindset – the belief that with effort you can learn, which will support math achievement.

There are also many free online resources to support math learning. We have worked on a few, including the Becoming a Math Family website and app, and the DREME (Development and Research in Early Math Education) website. Both have early math resources and tips for families with young children. For children in early elementary school, the Bedtime Math website and app merge math with storytelling. Another great resource is Wide Open School. Or Khan Academy offers tutoring in a range of math areas.

We realize that not all homes have internet access, and that this tilts the playing field. There are many other, offline ways to support children’s math thinking. Everyday activities such as buying groceries and planning schedules provide opportunities to ask questions and to engage children in math thinking. By sharing how you use math in your life, you can spark children’s interest and learning. And beyond the home, local libraries, museums and other community organizations provide valuable resources and ideas that can help stem the “COVID Slide.”

Susan Levine is the Rebecca Anne Boylan Professor in Education and Society in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. Michelle Hurst is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago.

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