How To Conquer Math Anxiety With Your Kids

Math homework can be a huge stressor for kids and parents alike. The founder of Bedtime Math offers tips to make math homework a better experience.


I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a parent tell me, “I’m just not a math person.”

As a mom of three and the founder of Bedtime Math, a nonprofit with an aim to inspire a love of math in children, I know the subject can be inspiring and empowering for kids—not to mention integral to our daily lives. But I also know that of the many challenges parents have to juggle these days, their kid’s math homework is one that can cause far too much anxiety. Even before the pandemic, Facebook was flooded with posts from parents weeping over third-grade math homework.  

If you’re one of those parents, you’re far from alone. A 2021 OnePoll study found 56% of parents feel “hopeless” when attempting to help their kids with math homework. 

It turns out there are lots of reasons why. Math is taught differently these days, making even simple topics look unfamiliar and intimidating to parents. The often-dry curricula can turn homework into drudgery, also reducing kids’ motivation to dig in and learn.

What’s more, we parents didn’t always get such strong math instruction ourselves. I’ve had a lot of parents—friends and complete strangers—unload their worst childhood math class memories on me.  Some of them endured public humiliation for getting a wrong answer. Others remember days or weeks where they didn’t understand the topics flying by, until they finally just stopped trying to catch up.

But here’s the thing: research shows that when parents are anxious about math and try helping their kids with homework, their kids learn significantly less math in the school year and also have more math anxiety.  

As parents, we want to model smarts and fearlessness to our kids. And when it comes to elementary math, we definitely can. All parents need is a little guidance, a mindset shift, and some support. I want to help parents set the same stage for their children. Even if you’re feeling intimidated by fractions or leery of percentages, these four tips can help you help your child succeed.

Erase Your Own Math Hesitancy

Many parents report that they don’t even recognize the newer methods of math instruction. In fact, that aforementioned study found 70% of parents say it’s harder for them to solve math homework today even though they remember what they learned in school. But today’s math is the very same math you learned back in the day. The dance steps may differ, but the end goal is the same: You’re adding two numbers, you’re finding the fraction of a quantity, and so on.

 Instead of signaling to your kids that you hate math or are bad at it, project math positivity and dive in with them. The simplest way to do this? Start at the beginning. When your child learns to count and add, count and add along with them. Get speedy together with your times tables. Even if you’re going in midstream with a middle-elementary child, back up and figure out the earliest place where you’re not comfortable, master it, and move on. 

Help Them Find Success

Let homework be a chance to taste the thrill of success. Math is a journey to the right answer, not a gotcha of rights and wrongs. If your child gives an incorrect answer, simply ask, “How did you get that?” As kids unpack their reasoning, they tend to find the error themselves. This builds true understanding of the topic as well as confidence, since they figured it out without anyone’s help.

 And, when your child has nailed the right answer, stretch a little. Ask, “How about doubling that, like the big fifth graders do?” or “Can you add 100 to that?” Unlike at school, at home you actually have time to explore, and kids feel huge pride when they do something harder than what’s in class.

Make Math a Fun Part of Every Day

I did this with my own kids by listening to what they talked about at dinner—flamingos, pillow forts, or chocolate chips—then making up math questions about it at bedtime. (This was the inspiration behind the Bedtime Math app.) For instance, If you have four flamingoes and half are standing on both legs but half are standing on just one leg, how many flamingo feet are on the floor? The key is not to pick a math topic and force it to be fun. It’s to figure out what kids find fun, then find the math in that.  

Here’s how: Point out to kids that math pops up everywhere, like when you set a timer, pull out a ruler, or look at a clock. When that leads to a fun, on-the-spot challenge—who has the longest hair?—kids are energized and interested.

You can also tie math skills to everyday tasks. For example, explain how knowing your numbers helps you press the right button in an elevator. Being able to count down means making change correctly at their lemonade stand or getting to the movies on time. (You can find more real-life examples here.)

Helping kids understand the connection between what they’re learning in math and the real world engages their curiosity and brings relevance to learning. 

Do a Math Assessment With Your Kid

You don’t have to be a math expert to see when your kid is struggling. To size up your kids’ math skills yourself, toss age-appropriate questions into casual conversation. For example, ask your kindergartner to start counting from a number other than 1, such as 7. If they have to whisper “123456” before saying 7, they’ve probably just memorized the names of the numbers. For a second grader, ask, “Nana is 68 years old, so in what year was she born?” While your child wrestles with the question, you are assessing whether they can do multi-digit subtraction—a key standard for second and third grade.

Quick checkups like these help you determine where your child stands in math. If you can’t help them yourself (totally OK!), that can be an important piece of information you can then bring to their teacher. 

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