Why Common Core Math Can Be Hard for Parents

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Expert Corner blog post by Bob Cunningham

I’ve been a part of many conversations about how hard it is for parents to help kids with math homework. In the past, these talks almost always started with a parent saying something like, “I hated math when I was in school,” or, “Math still makes me nervous.”

The conversations start differently now. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “I just don’t get Common Core math.”

It’s not a surprise that some parents get nervous about math. It’s also not a surprise that many are frustrated by Common Core math. In fact, it makes sense. The math their kids are learning is totally unrecognizable to the parents.

Do you remember math in elementary school and junior high? In those days we learned calculation. We memorized our facts. Then we learned how to apply those facts to problems made up entirely of numerals and symbols.

As we got older, we were introduced to word problems. We learned the steps to follow for borrowing and regrouping. We also learned things like rounding and estimation, where we applied simple math rules over and over again.

As long as we knew our facts, followed the steps, and got enough practice applying the rules correctly, we got the right answers. It was a very procedural approach to math.

Now, along comes Common Core, and math is no longer mostly about procedures and rules.

These days it’s more about concepts than it is about calculations. It’s about problem solving and flexible thinking to figure out how to get the right answer. You have to explain why you picked the strategy you picked. And you have to explain it in sentences.

When we try to help our kids with math, we quickly realize how foreign what they’re doing is. That’s where the frustration sets in. We don’t have the right tools. Our kids aren’t learning the tricks we use to solve problems. They’ve never heard of Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally to recall the correct order of operations. They don’t cross out zeroes when dividing.

Being in foreign territory can be even tougher for parents of kids with learning and attention issues. That’s because Common Core math can be harder for kids with certain challenges. So everybody’s more frustrated.

Kids with math issues can’t rely on memorization of facts and procedures to get by. And we know how much easier it would be for them if they could.

Kids with reading and writing issues now have to use more reading and writing in math. And we know that math doesn’t have to involve those skills.

For kids with an IEP or a 504 plan, though, there may be other options. There’s nothing in Common Core to prevent schools from using the old approach to math. Students just need to have to have some way to explain their work in words. Some kids can get the old type of instruction as a special education service. Or they get an accommodation that allows them to use numerals instead of words to show their work.

Even so, parents still have to be prepared to help with Common Core math homework. So what can make that easier?

The advice I always give is to review the homework yourself before you sit down to help. Look up unfamiliar concepts or vocabulary online. (Keep track of vocabulary that’s used regularly so you can refer back to it.) It doesn’t take long for the concepts and language to become familiar. Once they do, it’s clearer how to translate them into the math we grew up with.

Also, talk with your child’s math teacher. Ask how she explains the work to the students, so you can use the same approach at home with your child.

Thankfully, Common Core math isn’t more complicated. It’s just different. If you can teach yourself a little bit about it, and get support from the teacher, it will be easier for you to help your child with math homework—without the frustration.


Looking for more tips on how to help your child with math? See Bob Cunningham walk through Common Core math problems step by step in this video.

Any opinions, views, information and other content contained in blogs on Understood.org are the sole responsibility of the writer of the blog, and do not necessarily reflect the views, values, opinions or beliefs of, and are not endorsed by, Understood.

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