For 15-year-old Marisa Morales, math doubts began in third grade. “She was having problems with multiplication tables, and she started saying, ‘I’m not good at math,’” recalls mom Irene. So when an all-girls after-school math and science group began at her central Texas middle school, Irene immediately signed Marisa up. Last year, Marisa aced Algebra I, and more important, “She has so much more self-confidence about math,” reports Irene.
While all-girls programs aimed at overcoming math dread are growing, parents can learn how to boost math confidence in girls at home, experts say. “Studies say that parent involvement is the number one predictor of increased success,” says Julie Jackson, former coordinator of math and science programs for Girlstart, an Austin, Texas based program that gets girls enthusiastic about technology, math, and science. Try these tactics to hone her math-ability.
Simply make the use of everyday math explicit, and let her figure problems out.
“Shopping is ideal for showing how several math operations help us make decisions,” notes Jackson. Sale prices and coupons offer opportunities to use percentages and decimals; budgeting and allowances can be transformed into word problems such as “ Compute how many weeks of allowance gets you the blue dress compared with the blue jeans at a 30% discount.” Resist the temptation to solve it for her, and keep in mind that girls also need to practice figuring out problems in their own way.
Cooking presents another prime opportunity. “Recipes are wonderful for working with fractions and learning how to use ratios when increasing or decreasing a recipe,” says Jackson. Meal planning using grocery store circulars can be fun. Girls can plan a dream meal and figure out the total price for given amounts of food, with discount coupons or two-fers adding yet more math practice. And why not let girls figure out gas expenditure for traveling to the store, or figure distances for different routes walking there?
Let your daughter help balance your checkbook (or start her own account) and have her look over credit card expenditure reports to offer exposure her to both math and credit card responsibility. “Girls can also compute salaries and savings scenarios for the money they earn babysitting or working at other jobs, or for jobs they’d like to get,” notes Jackson.
Find out what specific math bugaboo she may have, and address it.
Monitor her homework to see where she’s getting things wrong, and confirm with a quick chat with her teacher. Check out resources to sharpen skills in that area, or simply use a real-life, hands-on example. If fractions are the offender, buy a chocolate bar that breaks into equal pieces and ask her to figure out fractions based on differing numbers of friends sharing the candy. For decimal dilemmas, collect a big bowl of money with lots of coins and some bills so she can experience how a base-ten number system works as well as practice real-life scenarios in spending and making correct change.
Always model a math-positive attitude.
“Never say, ‘Oh, I’m no good at math either,’” Jackson warns. As math classes get more complicated, many parents may need a little brush-up themselves. But if so, say something like, ‘I’m not sure how to answer this problem. But I’m sure we can work it out together if we review the material.’ If your daughter disses her own math abilities, remind her of other examples of how she learned something by practicing and persistence, such as riding a bike or playing an instrument.
Consider hosting an occasional all-girl after-school math funfest, or a math-themed party.
When girls are in an all-girl group, they are inclined to feel less self-conscious about making mistakes and have fun being themselves, notes Jackson. Try a book such as The Math Book for Girls (Kids Can Press, 2000) to inspire math games or plan a party in which girls create secret-code invitations, chart pizza preferences on a graph, and play probability games.