How Can I Support My Child in Learning Maths?

A normal week has 168 hours in it. Assuming 8 hours sleep a night[1], that's 112 waking hours for doing everything else, including learning things. In a school week, children spend somewhere between 3 and 5 hours in maths lessons[2] depending on various factors such as which school they go to and what year they're in. That, using the middle of that range, is about 3.5% of a teenager's working week.

A silhouette of a family playing with a ball in front of a faint quadratic graph.
TLDR: Model resilience & positivity, and engage with the subject in front of and with them, just like you would in any other area of their development.

That's not enough time in which to learn - I mean really learn and understand - any subject. Just so we're clear, this post is absolutely not about:

  • advocating for more lesson time to be devoted to mathematics. 👎
I just wanted to set the key premise which is that if your child is only encountering mathematics during maths lessons, then regardless of how excellent those lessons are and how engaged your child is during them, they're not getting the best out of their education.

  • advocating for loads of maths homework. 👎
As a maths teacher, setting homework is an unfortunate necessity because if I don't the next time they'll think explicitly and purposefully about mathematics is when they next see me, and they'll have forgotten most of what we covered last time. I'd much rather they were engaging with maths through self-directed, independent means, but this doesn't happen in the vast majority of cases, so homework it is.

The problem: A very British pastime

I haven't yet mentioned the scorn that British society loves to throw at mathematics. Negativity towards mathematics is something of a national sport, which means that even if all of their maths lessons are a tsunami of mathematical joy, for around 96.5% of a child's waking week if maths is mentioned at all it's neatly packaged in loathing: when I give the answer to "so what do you do?" asked by someone I've just met, the response is invariably something like "oh, I've never been any good at maths," or "I hate maths," or "maths is pointless because I've never factorised a quadratic since I left school,"[3]. And it's not just me experiencing this:

And it's not just normal, everyday people doing it, either: This DFS advert features "I hate maths!" at around 28 seconds (why is it never one of the many other subjects taught in schools?); this Specsavers leaflet states the silliness of algebra as its punchline; and Pizza Express vomited up this completely irrelevant jibe.

All this prompted me to post a thread about what can be done - by parents and other adults[4] - to help children in their lives with their mathematical learning journeys. You can read that thread by clicking on the embedded tweet below, but as it blew up a little (compared to anything else I tweet) I thought it might be useful to turn it into a blog post.


How to help your child to learn maths

You don't have to be a qualified mathematician, or even "good" at maths[5], to help your children progress in the subject. All that's required is modelling resilience and positivity towards what they're doing, and avoiding reinforcing negative tropes about mathematics, such as:

1. They do it differently now

You recognise the question, but their method is completely different from the one you know!

Not a problem:

  • get them to teach you their method
  • teach them yours
Work together to help each other understand your preferred methods. See if you can spot similarities. Why do both of them work? Can you find reasons why one may be "better" than the other? There are no right answers here (but "this is the way I was taught it" is definitely a wrong one).

2. I never understood it as a child, and I'm not going to get it now

They're doing something you don't recognise, or maybe something that you do recognise but never got the hang of it?

Not a problem:

  • Get them to teach you as much of it as they can

There's a popular quote that's often attributed to Einstein[6] but probably wasn't said by him. Nevertheless, it's apt here: "You don't really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother/father." The grandmother/father, here, is shorthand for 'any non-specialist' (which is probably true for most people unless your grandmother is Katherine Johnson), and teaching someone else something is not only a great way to work out how well you understand it, but also the process of attempting to explain it, and revising that explanation if it doesn't work perfectly the first time, provides excellent motivation to explore the why behind things rather than just settling for being able to turn a handle and get the right answer out.

  • Work together on it.

A small but astonishingly powerful word is yet. Feels like you've hit a dead end? Throw a yet in there and see what happens: "I don't understand it" is final. "I don't understand it yet" is full of possibility, promise and potential. Learning new things is a positive thing, and not (yet) understanding something is a prerequisite for learning something new.

3. I've never been any good at maths

Don't fall into (or, more importantly, work to get out of) the habit of saying things like "I've never been any good at maths," "I've always hated maths," "I've never seen the point of maths," etc: these are the most effective ways to kill a potential future mathematician.

And that's not just in front of your children: stop doing it amongst adults as well. Who knows when your child is going to overhear? More importantly, if you genuinely believe what you're saying your child will pick up on that even if you don't say it when you're talking to them: to help your child develop as a mathematician you need to honestly believe that it's worth doing, that it's possible, that it's a good thing. This may mean that you need to change your own mindset regarding mathematics, and that's fine too. Get your child to help you. It's fine to find things difficult: the problem comes when that's used as an excuse for not bothering. Besides, if you think about those phrases - if you really think about them and analyse what they mean - they're meaningless anyway[7]. There's literally no benefit to having them as part of your stock of Things That You Say, so just ditch them. If you want your child to succeed in maths you must genuinely have a positive attitude towards it, not just fake it in front of them.

When you've got the hang of not saying these nonsense phrases then start challenging other adults to stop saying them too. If you've given up the maths-negativity addiction but every other adult in your child's life is carrying on with it, they still have the same problem: there's more of them[8] than us[9].

There's a widespread belief that some people are born able to do maths, and some aren't, epitomised by the phrase "I'm just not a maths person". This is - and I'm holding back, here - utter nonsense. It's a phrase that is also applied to foreign languages, drawing and painting, sport, and all sorts of other skills, and it's equally nonsense for all of them. Nobody is born with expertise in any of these areas preinstalled, and everyone - absolutely, categorically everyone - is capable of becoming better today in any of these areas than they were yesterday.

4. But I always make them do their homework

Model mathematical positivity at times other than when they're doing homework. Ask mathematical questions about everything. Three catch-all mathematical questions - good for any occasion - to get you started:

  1. Is there a pattern here?
  2. Can we explain how that pattern works?
  3. Can we predict what might happen in a slightly different situation based on this?

5. You want me to like maths? In front of people?

Being positive about maths can be exhausting because you're often going against the flow. An excellent way to make it easier and more natural is to introduce more maths-positive people into your life, and then interact with them and ask them things.

Where to start, though? How do you find maths fans? Aren't they all shy and bereft of social skills? No. That's one of those negative tropes that people like to write into sitcoms. The truth is that people who enjoy maths are everywhere and it's really, really easy to find people who like discussing maths things. Better still, there's an entire community of maths fans who work on helping people who don't yet know that they're also maths fans to realise it.

Here are some ways to find maths fans to play with:

  • Social media!
    Follow me, or just say "hi, can you point me towards some maths fans to follow":
    Twitter | Mastodon | LinkedIn
  • Also social media!
    The hashtag #tmwyk stands for "talking maths with your kids" exists on various social media sites, so search for it and have a browse (clicking the link will take you to the most recent posts with that tag on twitter). Don't just read the posts; engage with them too! Responding to these posts, or even just 'liking' them at first, will encourage them to post more, and that's what we want. When you've gained a little confidence, throw your own posts tagged with #tmwyk into the mix as well.
  • Real life!
    MathsJam is a monthly meetup of maths fans in pubs around the world: Find your nearest one at and go along. I realise this might sound daunting, but it's almost certainly not what you're imagining[10], and the main thing that most MathsJam organisers want most in the whole world is for a few more people to turn up. It's important to note that MathsJams are not aimed at children (hence being in pubs) so it's a chance for you to pick up some of the maths-love while your young ones are tucked up in bed dreaming of the day that they, too, can combine beer and maths.
  • Blogs!
    You're already reading one of my blog posts: scroll up and subscribe to make sure you don't miss another one, and/or flick through some of my other maths themed posts once you've finished here. You might like some of the things I post at TheActualMaths, too.

6. But I'm still not very good at maths

Honestly, the absolute best way to get started supporting children's mathematical development is to stop it with the "I've never been any good at maths" stuff. Even maths profs think that from time to time: the difference is they use it as motivation rather than an excuse.

It's not too far from "maths is hard": maths fans and maths-phobes all think maths is hard: for the latter, that's one of the reasons they don't want to engage with it. For the former, it's one of the reasons they can't get enough.

You find something hard? Good. That means you're pushing the limits of what you're capable of, and the great thing about those limits is that they're not fixed: when you push on them they move. Some move further or more easily than others, but they all move.

A key feature of people who love maths is not that they keep doing it because they already know it all; they keep doing it because they keep finding things that they don't already know. Harnessing the fear of the unknown and turning it into excitement is, I feel, one of the most important things in understanding why people like maths.

7. It's not my job to teach my kids maths

This is a common belief, but it's also... unhelpful: nobody can learn maths with just 3 - 5 hours contact per week with someone who cares about it.

The fact is that children with parents who engage with them mathematically have a distinct advantage over those who don't. If you see part of your job as a parent as helping your child to succeed at life, then it absolutely is your job to get involved with their maths education. The beauty is that your part of that job can be so much more open and so much less rigid and formal than the bits that their teachers have to do.

8. It's kind of hard to find maths in the 'real world'

Now, this I agree with. Sort of. It is hard to find maths in the real world, but that isn't because it's not there; it's because Western society has trained itself to ignore it as part of that "I've never seen the point of maths" thing that it's so fond of. In reality maths is dripping off everything, which is why it's such an important thing to teach and to learn.

Museums, galleries and heritage sites are excellent centres for cultural learning, but unfortunately most of them have fallen foul of the "there's no maths here" fib. Mathematics has been a fundamental part of cultural development ever since cultures started to develop, but there are few places that embrace aspects of mathematics in their stories. Those that do tend to save it for formal school group visits. Even the Science Museum's Maths Gallery wimps out on actually exploring any maths.

Things are changing, gradually: If you're ever anywhere near Leeds do make sure you visit Maths City. It looks great, but we shouldn't need to travel all the way to Leeds just to experience some maths in the cultural sector. I'm not sure how to speed up this change, but I'd appreciate it if you could do me a favour: next time you visit a museum, art gallery, heritage site or any other 'day out' kind of place, take the opportunity to fill in the inevitable feedback form (or post a review somewhere, etc). Be completely honest, of course, but when you're offered an opportunity to write some free text, include something like "I wish there had been more attention drawn to the mathematics that is almost literally running down the walls here." Or, if they did include some mathematical discussion beyond "some clever people did maths once," make a big thing of praising that.

Baby steps. We'll get there.

Some comments

A few people responded to the original tweet with some great comments and potential talking points and I didn't want to just absorb them into this post without acknowledging where they came from:


  1. That's a big assumption, I know, but I've got to start somewhere. [back]
  2. I have no reference for this; it's just a finger in the wind based on my own experiences of teaching and talking to others. Please feel free to send me links to any research either supporting or refuting these figures. [back]
  3. This is a ridiculous argument but people insist on bringing it out. If cherry-picking one idea that I, personally, haven't used as an adult is enough to abolish the teaching of an entire subject at school then give me five minutes and I'll remove the need for anyone to go to school at all. [back]
  4. Almost everything I see on the subject of improving either maths attainment or attitudes towards maths starts with "maths teachers should..." and that illustrates exactly where we're going wrong: 4 hours a week of singing and dancing maths isn't going to change a thing when children are told how awful it is for the other 108. Adults of the UK who don't teach maths: you need to join in too. [back]
  5. It seems to be a common belief that being "good at maths" means being able to do calculations very fast in your head. I disagree with this: it is possible to be a very quick calculator without being all that good at maths, and it's just as possible to be an excellent mathematician without mad multiplication skills. [back]
  6. Aren't they all? [back]
  7. Seriously, if you're someone who freely says "I've never been any good at maths," or something similar,  have a think about what that actually means to you: what criteria are you using to judge how good you are at maths? How could you tell if someone else is or isn't "good at maths"? I would absolutely genuinely love to hear what you come up with, so contact me if you feel like sharing. [back]
  8. Anti-maths campaigners. [back]
  9. Maths fans. And by "us" I mean "you and me" because by this stage you are one of us. [back]
  10. Unless you're imagining a surprising amount of juggling. [back]

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