At first glance, early math instruction looks like easy kids’ stuff. But watch a first or second grader try to make sense of the number line and you’ll get quite a different view. After all, when you’re just coming from the world of sandbox and toy, it’s a giant intellectual leap to go from one integer to another, let alone take one abstract number, like a ten, and break it into concrete parts. To a six year old, this can feel like calculus!

Challenging as it may be, this early math is also crucial. In fact, experts even refer to these skills as math “literacy”— skills which are as fundamental to young minds as the ability to decode words. Hopefully, by the end of second grade, your child will have a very solid understanding of the number line from 1-100. He or she will also understand what addition and subtraction are, and should be able to do both of them with ease. Also, your child should have a solid basic grasp of how to tell time and how to count change up to a dollar.

Unfortunately, say many educators, all too many children are unprepared for third grade math, and since the subject is so sequential, problems only grow over time. Steve Slavin, Ph.D., professor and author of Math for your First and Second Grader: All You Need to Know to be your Child’s Best Teacher, estimates that this number may be as high as 50% nationwide. For those children, he offers this dire comparison: “It’s like a track meet, where one of the runners is stuck trying to run with one foot in a pail of cement.” In other words, it’s something we parents want to avoid at all costs.

So what can parents do? Here are Slavin’s top three recommendations:

• Just Say Yes” anytime your child wants to talk about math or asks for help with it. Do this naturally, and convey your positive attitude both about the subject and about your child’s abilities. And even if your child doesn’t volunteer, try to spend a short time every evening, perhaps after dinner and before bedtime reading, doing some basic math together. Bottom line, says Slavin: “It’s simple. You learn math by doing math.”
• Do math often, but keep it short and simple. Remember: the most important goal of this stage is a deep, nearly automatic mastery of basic addition and subtraction. Slavin strongly recommends constant repetition of concepts, not just with paper and pencil but with objects as well. Remember, a household can be a treasure trove for young mathematicians, whether it’s counting spoons, pennies, or marshmallow treats. By all means, he says, leave calculators out, and focus on the joy of discovery. Don’t overdo it, either: fifteen minutes a day is plenty.

• Know the standards, and stay in touch with your teacher. You have every right, Slavin says, to ask your child’s teacher exactly what’s being taught and what your kid is learning. You should also check your state standards, which are published on the website for your state’s Department of Education. You can augment the curriculum with store-bought workbooks, and, says Slavin, you may follow the example of Japanese parents, who buy a copy of their children’s texts to keep at home.

Whatever strategies you adopt, says Slavin, remember that a good grasp of fundamentals at this early age can improve math for a lifetime. “There’s a saying among farmers,” he says, “Don’t eat your seed corn.” In a competitive, technological age, we need to raise children who can handle the challenges of mathematics. The investment of a few minutes a night, he promises, can offer everyone a rich harvest for years to come.

If students are struggling to stay focused doing math problems on paper, math games can be a great alternative.