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Parents guide to math and science

Read and download our colorful PDF version here.

Are you confused by your child’s math homework? Is science an afterthought in your child’s school? This guide will help you find out whether your children are getting the math or science instruction they need in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade—and will help you do something about it if they aren’t. It will explain what the new Common Core State Learning Standards mean for your child. No school is perfect, but if you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your child’s school you can help fill in the gaps—even if you don’t know much math and science yourself.

What to look for in the classroom

Whatever your child’s grade level, look for fun-to-read books about math and science, as well as fish tanks, animals such as gerbils, live plants and tools including magnifying glasses, magnets, or electrical circuits. There is more to math and science than what you can find in a textbook. Check the daily schedule, which is usually posted in the classroom. Children should be working on math at least one hour a day. Science lessons should be part of a regular school day, not only a special class once a week. If you see an egg incubator (so children can watch chicks hatch and grow) or caterpillars (which will grow into butterflies), that’s a good clue that science lessons are part of the daily routine.

What to ask the teacher

Obviously, you want to ask questions as part of friendly curiosity, not grilling the teacher. Remember, you both have your children’s best interest at heart. Here are some ideas for questions:

How do you challenge the best students and help struggling learners?

Reaching children of different abilities in the same class is one of a teacher’s most difficult tasks, particularly when it comes to math. Most teachers know how to find books to match a child’s reading level, but they often pitch math lessons to the whole group in order to cover a certain amount of material.

The best schools ensure the brightest children can move ahead of their peers, either by working on more complex problems or by working independently 
on math websites such as Khan Academy (khanacademy.org). They also ensure struggling kids get the help they need, often in small groups inside or outside the classroom.

Faster learners shouldn’t be told to read a book while other children finish their work. They should be working on math during math time. It’s okay if a teacher occasionally asks them to double-check their work or to help their peers, but faster learners need a chance to do more advanced work.

What does your child say?

Another telling clue to successful STEM education: Is your child talking about math and science? Does she bring her enthusiasm home?

One mother we spoke to as part of our project said that her son was thrilled to tell her what he learned about migration when he tallied the number of pigeons in his neighborhood over time as part of a project at the Brooklyn New School. First-graders at Midtown West in Manhattan ask their parents to help them find simple machines at home—a flip-top lid (a.k.a., a lever) and a doorstop (for scientific purposes, a wedge).
 Does your child use words such as “carnivore,” “porous,” “sediment,” “volcanic ash” or “metamorphosis”? Good science instruction builds a child’s vocabulary.

What parents can do if a school falls short

If your child’s school falls short in effectively teaching your child math and science or providing the resources necessary to engage him, there is much you can do to help.

Volunteer at the school

  • Start a chess or robotics club after school or during lunch. Shewonia Bowman, an engineer and the mother of two girls, started an early morning math club with interactive games at PS 199 in Manhattan.
  • Help children plant a school vegetable garden to teach them about nutrition and the environment.
  • Chaperone or extend other help on a relevant field trip; excursions to area museums are good ways to bolster science in the school curriculum, for example.

Repeat after me

  • If your child’s school is good at teaching the concepts of math but doesn’t teach quick recall of facts, you may want to supplement at home with more timed drills, a computer program or flash cards.
  • If your child doesn’t respond to old- fashioned memorization drills, look for songs or other ways to memorize facts using pictures or objects. For example, you can teach your child to “skip count” by the dreaded 7s by 
setting the numbers to the tune of “Happy Birthday”: 7, 14, 21 / 28, 35 / 42, 49 / 56, 63...
  • Visit, a free website loaded with drills, to help with memorization of multiplication tables.

Want to know more? Further reading on math and science

1. Female teachers unwittingly passed their own math anxiety onto their female students in an article based on the work of Sian L. Beilock, et.al., called: “Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety Affects Girls’ Math Achievement.”

2. When science and literacy lessons are integrated, students demonstrate greater skill in all of these areas, writes Gina N. Cervetti, et. al., in a paper titled, “A Model of Science-Literacy Integration.”

3. Many girls believe math ability is fixed-—it’s a gift you have or do not have. Girls who believe math is an acquired set of skills do better, according to Carol S. Dweck, in her book: Mindset.