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Talking About Math With Young Children: It’s Easier Than You Think!

Jun 18 2019

Posted In:

General, Parents, Teachers

By Talia Berkowitz and Susan Levine, University of Chicago 

Anna and her 3-year-old daughter take a mid-afternoon stroll down the main street in their town. Anna points out the colorful street and store signs, and is impressed when her daughter identifies colors like turquoise and maroon! Later, they stop to talk about which letters they can identify on an advertisement at the bus stop. 

The above describes a wonderful, informal learning experience shared between a mother and daughter. Beyond talking about colors and letters, there are also many opportunities in everyday life to incorporate rich number and spatial talk—what is commonly referred to as math talk.

But parents around the world may subconsciously (or even purposely!) avoid engaging their children in math for a myriad of reasons. Many adults may not know what early math with young children looks like or may feel ill-equipped to talk with their children about math. Some of these adults may be anxious about math and have negative feelings and memories associated with math, leading to math avoidance behaviors, including avoiding math interactions with young children. [1]

Managing Math Anxiety

Research has shown that when parents engage in math talk and activities with their young children, their children are more likely to succeed in math in school. Parents can learn how to put their own negative feelings about math aside and to incorporate positive, math-rich experiences into their daily routines. [2] Fortunately, this is not hard to do! 

The following are some strategies you can use to change the way you think about math:

Ease your math anxiety. Emerging research suggests that by simply telling yourself that the anxiety you are experiencing is actually excitement (both are types of arousal), or by reminding yourself that anxiety is a good thing because it leads to heightened awareness and increased focus, can boost your performance on various tasks—including math! [3] There is also evidence that writing or talking about how you feel about math can help you feel less anxious. [4] Whichever route you choose, finding a way to ease your anxiety will make engaging in math more fun for you and your child.

Recognize your own math strengths.Focus on the ways you successfully and routinely use math in your own life. Do you manage your household budget? Did you arrange the furniture in your house? Do you have a routine or schedule that you try to follow? All of these are ways you are engaging in mathematical thinking every day. By engaging in math this way, you may start to feel more positive about math and build up your confidence in your own math knowledge. Try to value the math you already know and do, talk about this with your child, and have some fun with it in the process. 

Realize that you know foundational math concepts. When you hear the word math it might immediately draw up memories of your high school precalculus or trigonometry classes. But math for young children is about foundational concepts that you learned when you were young. Try to focus on counting and labeling the number of objects in a set (e.g., “How many cars do you have? Three cars—one, two, three!”), and drawing comparisons (e.g., “Who has more Cheerios?”) as a way to reconnect with math basics. Also recognize that math is broader than numbers and counting; it includes looking for patterns (e.g., on clothing and in nature) or talking about shapes, sizes, and spatial features (e.g., triangle, tall, and straight). By doing this every day you will find that you can support your child’s math learning, value the role of math in your child’s development, and have high expectations for your child's math achievement.

Math is a way of thinking. Math is not about right or wrongIn school, the focus is all too often on getting the correct answer, but the process you engage in to get there is just as important (if not more important!). Ask questions and prompt your children to talk about math (e.g., “How many plates do we need if everyone in the family is eating dinner together? How did you get that answer?”).

Adopt a growth mindset.Try to remember that math is learned, it is not an inborn trait. This means that math knowledge is malleable and can change with time and effort. Everyone can get better at math if they work hard. Focus on what you and your child can do, and then praise their effort as they start to work on a new challenge (e.g., “Good job!” rather than “You are good at math”). [5]

Discovering Math in Everyday Routines

Keep in mind the intention behind incorporating math into everyday talk is to enhance, not replace, the interactions you already have with your child. Going back to the example from the beginning, the mother and daughter could have discussed the shapes of the street signs they saw in addition to the colors. The bus stop provided an opportunity to talk about time and schedules (e.g., “How many minutes have passed since the last bus came by?” or “Is the bus running early/late? How many minutes late is it?”). 

Engaging in math in fun ways with your child can change the way you think about and value math for your child, which in turn will help boost your child’s own math knowledge. [6, 7] Here are some more low-key, low-stress, and high-impact examples of fun ways you can add math into your interactions with your children.

Read books. Picture books are a wonderful way to build math understanding. For example, with Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, compare the number of kittens to the number of mittens. Ask how many windows are in the toy house? In this way, any book can become a math book in an instant!

Play games. Board games, card games, and puzzles are a great way to teach your children about counting, sequences, and patterns. They provide rich opportunities to talk about concepts such as more than, less than, and equal to. A card game like SET is a fun way to encourage your child to look for patterns and think about similarities and differences between multiple objects (play a free daily SET puzzle online at the SET website and The New York Times website).

Sing songs. Children’s songs often rely on patterns and repetition—both of which are part of math. Some songs involve counting (e.g.,The Ants Go Marching One by One). Other songs include concepts like up and down (e.g., Wheels on the Bus) and you can include hand motions to highlight these ideas for your child. You can also use your fingers to show the numbers you are singing about or find objects around the house to count as you sing along.

The authors are members of DREME's Family Math  project. Talia Berkowitz is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. Susan Levine, PhD, is the Rebecca Anne Boylan Professor of Education and Society in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago.

[1] Berkowitz, T., Gibson, D., & Levine, S.C. (under review). Parents’ math anxiety predicts early number talk with children.

[2] Levine, S.C., Gibson, D., & Berkowitz, T. (2019). Mathematical development in the early home environment. In D. Geary, D. Berch, & K.M. Koepke (Eds.), Mathematical Cognition and Learning, Volume 5 (pp. 107-142). Academic Press.

[3] Brooks, A.W. (2014). Get excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 1144-1158.

[4] Park, D., Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (2014). The role of expressive writing in math anxiety. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(2), 103-111.

[5] Gunderson, E.A., Sorhagen, N.S., Gripshover, S., Dweck, C., Goldin-Meadow, S. & Levine, S.C. (2018). Parent praise to toddlers predicts fourth grade academic achievement via children’s incremental mindsets.  Developmental Psychology, 54(3), 397-409.

[6] Berkowitz, T., Schaeffer, M., Maloney, E.A, Peterson, L., Gregor, C., Levine, S.C., & Beilock, S.L. (2015). Math at home adds up to achievement in school. Science, 350(6257), 196-198. doi: 10.1126/science.aac7427

[7] Schaeffer, M.W., Rozek, C., Berkowitz, T., Levine, S.C., & Beilock, S.L. (2018). Dis-Associating the relation between parents’ math anxiety and children’s math achievement: Long-term effects of a math app intervention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(12), 1782-1790.

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