“I don’t get it.” The first time you heard it, you barely blinked. After all, how hard can basic math be? But those worksheets just keep coming. Your child’s blank stares are turning into tears, and you’re at the end of your rope.

So, what's a parent to do? First, of course, talk with the teacher. Sometimes the problem may be fixed with some simple encouragement, or a quick booster lesson at school.

Still, in today’s standards-driven classrooms, math work is more complex than ever, and you can expect some challenging times. In fact, says the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the goal of elementary mathematics is deep and long term learning—not just rote facts, but “a focused and cohesive curriculum that implements problem solving, reasoning, and critical thinking.”

Sound like a lot? It is. But, says nationally respected math specialist and author, Peggy McLean, M.A., there’s good news: you can be tremendously helpful. You don’t have to be a math professor, either—just a fellow learner and guide. Here are her practical steps, developed over 37 years of classroom work with kids and families:

  • Start with questions, not explanations. “You don’t want kids just spouting a recipe,” cautions McLean. Let’s say they’re stumped on long division, for example (and many kids are). “If they’re just using a memorized ‘gozzinto’ like ‘four gozzinto twelve three times,’ says McLean, “they’re not getting it…and they won’t be able to follow as things get more complex.” So when you get that grunt of “dunno,” says McLean, talk with your child. Say “Show me how you got here,” or ask “Where did you start?” Try to understand what your child does know, and build from there.
  • Get “manipulative.” Once you understand where the confusion lies, pull out concrete, tactile stuff—teachers call them “manipulatives”--and let your kid move them around to illustrate concepts and discover patterns. For example, says McLean, money is an irresistible way for kids to practice all sorts of math, whether it’s grouping pennies and exchanging them for dimes, quarters and dollars, or practicing division by breaking dollars down and calculating remainders. For measurement, pull out tape measures, kitchen measuring cups, and households scales. And for geometry, never underestimate the delights of pulling apart and reassembling boxes, or folding paper to demonstrate angles or polygons.
  • Now, connect to abstract symbols. As the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics points out, math is the “representation” of real-life experiences in abstract form. Still stuck on division, for example? Use your stack of coins to solve the problem in front of you; then, and only then, have your child go back and write the numbers in equation form. Do it again and again, until it becomes automatic. The pace may seem slow at first, but it will pick up fast—and with this solid underpinning, you’ll save hours of future frustration.

If you notice that all this stuff looks different from the math you knew as a kid, you’re right. Children as young as five are now introduced to early concepts of algebra and geometry, and they will continue to revisit each concept as they move through the grades. Whether your child is in first grade or fifth, “manipulatives” can keep her anchored, and help everything make sense. You can expect some frustration—but also some deep satisfaction in hard work well done. As McLean says, “There’s nothing quite like those moments when [kids’] faces light up and they say, “I get it! I see it! I can do math!” And don’t be surprised if you discover that you’ve learned a thing or two, too.

For more help with math, you can introduce kids to our math games or find other math resources on our website.