Do you remember learning the value of the number nine? Or how you first figured out that 8+3=11? As adults, it’s hard to remember how we learned math, but younger children face this challenge every day and it’s a daunting one.

One of my favorite education classes addressed this issue. To understand what kids go through the first time they encounter an idea, my professors changed the manner in which we did problems. Then, as we struggled to grasp the new approach, the professors would use that confusion to help us learn methods of teaching. This process gave a fresh perspective and passion for building real comprehension of what is happening with numbers.

This perspective is helpful when my kids struggle with new ideas. It’s easy to say, “I don’t know why you do it that way, you just do!” because we’ve done it automatically for so long. Remembering what it felt like to need five minutes to solve a problem that would typically take five seconds helps me slow down and stay patient.

Number Sense

The first mathematical concepts children learn are numbers and their values. We’ve all heard a toddler say she’s two, and hold up two fingers. But understanding that 2 on a page, the word two, and the quantity of one object and another are the same is not easy to comprehend.

An important fact to remember as you help your child is that numbers are just symbols. The written and spoken words we use are simply what society chose a long time ago to represent a number of objects. So when a young child looks at a 2 for the first time, it’s the equivalent of a lightning bolt or a random scribble. When they hear the word “two,” you may as well be saying “googbiffery” or another random sound. It takes a lot of exposure and practice to understand the symbol and the idea.

Put Yourself in Your Child’s Shoes

Want to remember what it’s like to learn basic math concepts? Try this exercise: Create new numbers to represent 0,1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. Make ten distinctive scribbles to correspond with the value of each number. Study them for a bit, then replace the 0’s below with your new numbers, and write the values without double checking.

O O O O O =               O O=               O O O O O O O O=

O O O O O O O O O=

Wait for an hour, or even a day, and try it again!

Challenging, right? This is the process your child is going through as he gradually learns to understand and use numbers. So be patient, and do what you can to keep learning low-stress and enjoyable.

Do you have other tips for helping kids learn math?