Blocks, discs and plastic animals all are being used in elementary-school classrooms to help students understand the concepts of addition and subtraction.

Adam Normand, math curriculum coordinator at Fort Wayne, Ind., Community Schools, suggests parents use these and other hands-on manipulatives, including household items such as tape measures, to reinforce skills at home. 

Trevor ate two apples. Dad ate five apples. Mom bought 10 oranges at the store. How much did she spend?

Math might be challenging for an elementary school student, but it can be just as daunting for a parent tasked with helping with homework.

“Content is being pushed on kids earlier and earlier,” says Adam Normand, math curriculum coordinator at Fort Wayne Community Schools. “It is a lot different than (when parents) went to school and different than the way we learned because the expectations have been raised nationally.”

Children can come home with work that includes new ideas, such as the lattice method for multiplication, where there might not be enough explanation and it can be hard to help, says Willa Kline, executive director of Educational Opportunities Center.

Kline encourages parents to talk to the teacher about a specific situation, and Normand says that textbooks are available online via a teacher’s classroom website. But the best thing a parent can do, Normand and Kline say, is to focus on arithmetic.

“One of the things that students struggle with is that they don’t have enough time to practice their math facts,” he says.

Math facts are math questions that a student should just know; 2 + 2 = 4, 9 – 3 = 6. These “basics” help students build a math understanding and are the building blocks of math, helping them move onto more difficult concepts.

Children learn math in a progression – from a concrete, visual way to a more abstract way. For parents, Normand says, “it’s critical … not to just give (children) numbers and symbols but to give them anything.”

“Be creative with what you already have,” he adds. “You don’t need these colorful cubes or plastic bears to learn how to count.”

Rocks, coins and toys are all examples of “manipulatives,” educational jargon for things kids can play with to understand a concept, that can be used to help a child add and subtract. Children move the objects around and see the answer. Games, such as bingo, and songs can help reinforce math facts. Rulers and tape measures are good for the measurement piece.

Kline suggests trying a variety of things to “help them focus on facts and use them. The more they see it in different ways, then hopefully something clicks.”

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