Talking about math is easy for math teachers when talking with fellow math teachers. We love to geek out on strategies, games for our students to play, hands-on activities, common errors, and on and on.
When it comes to talking with our students’ parents/caregivers about math, it can be a bit more difficult. Explaining their child’s math progress can venture into emotional territory. (Check out educator Vanessa Vakharia’s podcast Math Therapy to explore more on math trauma.)
As math educators, we might have heard similar grumblings from parents:
- “That is not how I learned when I was in school.”
- “She cries and gets upset when I try to help her with her homework.”
- “I went to MIT/Harvard/[insert school name here]—how can my child be struggling in math?”
- “I’ve never been good at math, so I can’t help him.”
- “He’s never had a C before!”
- “She must be enrolled in sixth-grade advanced math. She is going to be an engineer.”
Each of these statements expresses a strong emotion that a parent has around their child’s math progress. It can be a hit to a parent’s ego if they have always been a math whiz themselves, but their child is currently struggling. It can also bring up old trauma and insecurities for parents who had a negative experience with math.
When educators enter into conversations about math progress, keep an open mind to whatever reactions might come up. We cannot cure a parent’s insecurities or a damaged ego, but we can lend a listening ear. As mentioned in my book, When Calling Parents Isn’t Your Calling, “Let the parent(s) talk first. Really listen to what they value and what they fear. Respond to their comments with empathy and suggestions as you see appropriate.”
For parents and older students who are anxious about math, I send them a link to Orly Rubinsten’s TED-Ed video, Why Do People Get So Anxious About Math?
What can math educators say to parents to effectively communicate math progress despite the emotions that might surround the topic?
5 Tips for Communicating About a Child’s Math Progress
1. Be honest and growth-minded. As educators, we aim to communicate in a kind, gentle, and growth-oriented manner. It’s important to balance this manner with honesty and specifics. It’s our job to tell parents the reality of their child’s progress.
This does not look like comparing with other students’ progress, but rather, using data to indicate their areas of strength and needs for growth. End the conversation with hopeful statements such as, “If Tarek attends tutorials once per week to practice operations with fractions, I am hopeful that he will gain more confidence and see more success.”
2. Don’t diagnose. Remember, unless you are a certified educational diagnostician, avoid any hints at diagnosis. Even if you suspect that a child may have dyscalculia, ADHD, or any other learning differences, only report behaviors you have observed, and refer the parent to the appropriate person in your school or district for further evaluation.
3. Speak in lay terms. Avoid math jargon that will hinder communication. For example, if a student in your class is struggling to use the property of equality to isolate the variable in multistep equations, it might advance the conversation to say instead, “I will work with Anna on using the steps we learned in class to solve equations.” Using overly specific math vocabulary can distract the conversation from the true point.
If a parent pushes back that their child “just didn’t show their work” or “they solved the problem a different way,” explain clearly why showing work or using a certain method is important for future concepts.
We are the experts in math education who know what concepts are coming in their child’s future. Sometimes alternate approaches to problems are appropriate, and other times specific processes are required to prepare the students for upcoming concepts. Parents may not know this, and by explaining the rationale, they can communicate the same message to their child at home.
4. Describe the whole child. Early in my career, I would start parent conferences by sharing a printed list of assessment grades their child had earned. I now see that scores only tell a fraction of the story about their child. Tests and quizzes are a snapshot of what a child can do at a particular time in a particular setting. Kids are so much more than a test grade. Mention how they engage in class, how they verbally explain their thinking, and their attitude toward learning math.
5. Recognize that extra work isn’t the answer. I often get parent requests for extra work their child can do to improve in math. First off, if a student is struggling to complete the required assignments, adding extra work isn’t going to help. Suggest to the parents other ways their child can get more out of their assignments, such as checking the provided answers as they work, watching an accompanying short video tutorial, or playing a fun math game that helps with fact memorization. On the other hand, if a student needs an extension to do the required work, explore ways to modify the existing assignments to offer depth and challenge rather than taking on extra practice.
Although the subject of math can bring its own baggage, parents and caregivers ultimately want to know the following:
- Do you like my child?
- Do you see my child?
- Are you on my child’s side?
As educators, we can communicate to families that we are partners for the success of their child through clarity, empathy, and hope.