How to Help a Child in First Grade with Math

What to do when a child is struggling with math

mother and daughter homework help - first grade math help
Parents can help a child with math by making it fun.. Andersen Ross/Getty Images

These days, with the added pressure of standardized tests and homework in the early grades and an increasing emphasis on academics--one reason why many parents and education experts are calling kindergarten "the new first grade"--it's common for young children to need a bit of help with reading, writing, and math.

If your first grader is struggling with math, take steps now to help her feel more confident and strengthen her math skills so that she can have a strong foundation from which to move forward.

Here are some things to try:

Get to the bottom of what the problem might be.
Is the teacher going too fast for your child? Does your child feel anxious about tests? Is he having trouble with one basic concept, such as subtracting or fractions, that's affecting all the math he's learning? Or could it be something completely unrelated, like a change in vision that's affecting his ability to see the board clearly?

Talk to your child's teacher.
It's likely that she'll have a good sense of what might be going on with your child and may have some suggestions on how to help.

Make math fun, first and foremost.
The trick is to play fun math-based games with kids so that they don't even realize that they're learning math. Is your child crazy about baseball stats? Does he love helping you in the kitchen? Take advantage of his favorite activities and look for ways to incorporate math into them. Some fun ways to play with math every day:

  • Play online math games. There are many great sites that feature computer math games for every grade and interest. If your child loves to compete, you can challenge him (and allow him to win sometimes) to games that use a timer to see how many math problems--such as simple addition problems--a child can do in a set number of minutes. Offer a prize at the end, like getting to choose the family games for your next family game night.
  • Play math games in the kitchen. Talk about concepts like doubling ingredients in a recipe or cutting it in half. Talk about concepts like which is more, 1/2 of a cup or 1/4 of a cup.
  • Play math games in the car. Whether you're taking a long trip or simply driving to school or to soccer, you can play with numbers in the car. Since first graders need to learn their numbers, you can play spot the number and have your child keep track of how many numbers she can see out the window on street signs, store fronts, houses, and more.
  • Math games at the grocery store. Have your first grader look at prices and see which ones are higher. (Older kids will be able to calculate actual value by looking at the price per weight of an item, but younger kids can stick to this simpler comparison.) Ask him to add certain items, such as apples and oranges, to see how many pieces of fruit you are buying.

Talk to your child about math muscles.
Like with so many things in life, practicing math will improve his skills.

Reassure him that he will get better at math with practice, and that there is no reason to get discouraged since the only way any of us can improve is by making mistakes or by not getting something right.

Help your child shake off the idea that some people are not good at math.
This is an unfortunate myth that often affects women and girls, but some boys may get that message, too. Having such an idea in their minds can lead to math anxiety and a dislike of math. The fact is, with practice, anyone can improve their math skills.

Assess your own attitude toward math.
Try not to say things like, "I'm not good at math" or "I hate math." Play math games with your child and really make an effort to have fun.

If none of these efforts seem to be making a difference, you may want to talk to your child's teacher or pediatrician about consulting a learning specialist or hiring a tutor who specializes in building kids' confidence about math.

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