By Meghan

If you’re the parent of a teenager, chances are good that a few years have passed since you had to graph a polynomial or find a derivative. Since high school math covers topics that people working outside of STEM don’t come across very often, many parents don’t feel like they can give much help to their teenage children with their math homework. But you’re an adult who solves problems every day! You have a lot to offer your teenage student about how to approach problems productively, utilize resources, and access their own abilities.

Your child already has a teacher and a tutor who can guide them in content and content-specific perspectives, but you, too, have a unique ability to support them in their growth as a math student. Watching their parent, especially one who doesn’t often do math, engage in an algebra or calculus problem with enthusiasm and curiosity can be a powerful experience for a teenager.

Here I suggest some questions that you can ask your child when they are stuck and explain how each question will help activate their thought processes. I describe the type of homework problem that each question is well-suited to, but I also recommend mixing it up! All of these questions should apply to just about any math problem, but different approaches will work well for different students.

# Question 1: What is the problem asking?

This might seem rather basic, but it is surprisingly effective. Asking your child to identify the goal of the problem will help them to frame it correctly in their mind, which can turn what looks like word soup into a reasonable problem. This is especially helpful with wordy questions.

# Question 2: What do you already know?

Just like Question 1, this should help your teenager to sort through words and diagrams and thereby better understand the problem itself. Establishing what they already know should also help your child to situate the question within content from class. They may realize there are vocabulary words from that day’s lesson, or numbers that lend themselves to a particular formula. This question is helpful with lengthy word problems and for problems that contain complicated diagrams.

# Question 3: Where have you seen something like this before?

While teachers occasionally give students unfamiliar problems in order to help them to learn how to approach something brand new on their own, which is an important skill, homework problems usually have something in common with material presented in class. In traditional math classrooms, class and homework problems often look nearly identical. In more progressive classrooms, this is less likely to be the case, but there will still be similar phrases, graphs, or word problem structures. Taking time to make connections will not only help your teen to figure out what approach to use, but will also help them to have a deeper understanding of the material. I recommend asking this question about problems with visual components or algebraic equations.

# Question 4: Can you brainstorm 5 different ways you could try to solve this problem?

Sometimes students are paralyzed at the start of a problem because they are worried they’re not doing it the ‘right’ way. Remove that pressure by just asking them to list lots of ways they could start working on the problem. Some ideas might be tedious, some might require luck, and some might just be silly. The point is to loosen up your child’s thought process. This allows them to ponder the question in a less intimidating manner, which should help them to discover that they know something useful. This is especially helpful for problems that look particularly novel to your child.

# Question 5: Can you make a guess? How would you know if it was right?

Guessing the answer, and then checking that guess, has many benefits. First of all, it’s an approachable way to start thinking about a problem. Coming up with a reasonable guess might even be enough for your child to recognize the underlying mathematical concepts. If it’s not, the checking process lets your child walk through the problem with a concrete number, instead of with an abstract variable, which is often much easier. In some cases, your child might even guess the correct answer, or something close to it. Guessing and checking is especially useful for word problems and just about any other problem that has a number for an answer.

Math class is at least as much about the content as it is how to think about that content. Your job during homework time isn’t to teach your child the nitty gritty details (that’s what their teacher and tutor are for), but to help them to identify what they already know and apply it to the problem at hand. These questions should help you to do that – and maybe you’ll come up with more that work well with your teenager. If you do, share them in the comments!

Meghan is one of our incredible mathematics tutors in Cambridge.  If you're interested in working with him in Cambridge or online, you should contact us today!

Are you looking for more content on mathematics?  Check out some of our previous blog posts below!