Tutoring Your Kids in Math at Home

October 24, 2017

A woman is tutoring a girl in math
If you’ve ever tried tutoring your child in math, you’ve probably had this conversation:

“I just don’t get it.”
“What part do you not understand?”
“All of it!”

When a child shuts down this way, it’s frustrating for both tutor and student, and it can be hard to make progress. Our tutors have experience overcoming obstacles like this from their work with schools. That’s why we’ve pulled together a few of our favorite tutoring tips for helping a child feel confident in the face of new math concepts and for encouraging them back to a productive mindset when they get frustrated.


1. Watch your language (no, not like that!).

When tutoring it’s important to pay close attention to everything you say, as well as how you say it. Avoid phrases that carry judgment like,  “Come on. Don’t you know this already?” or, “I thought you learned this last year.” Even something that seems encouraging on the surface, such as, “You can do this. It’s easy,” can be a bad idea. If she doesn’t understand something even though it’s “easy,” what does that say about her intelligence? Instead, try something like, “I know this is challenging, but we have to work hard to learn new things.” You want your child to feel safe admitting when she doesn’t know something. Then she’ll be more likely to come to you for help in the future.

2. Ask lots of questions.

Ask questions – the more general, the better. Try using the same basic questions on each problem, and give your child lots of time to think and respond. When your child brings you a problem he’s stuck on, don’t start by giving him a hint. Ask, “What are you trying to find?” or, “What’s the main question of the problem?” Follow-up with “What else do you need to know to solve it?” If he’s still stuck try, “Does this look like a problem you’ve seen before? How did you solve that one?” The goal is to model a step-by-step approach to building a plan, using the same simple questions over and over. Eventually your child will be able to ask these questions independently and will be less daunted by multi-step problems.

3. Use “not yet” language.

If you’re not familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, it’s a great subject for those wanting to help their children succeed. In short, a student with a growth mindset understands that they can increase their own intelligence through hard work and that failure is just a minor bump in the road. One simple tip from Dweck for encouraging growth mindset is to use “not yet” language. When a child says something like, “I don’t get it,” respond with, “You don’t get it yet, but you will.” You can also remind them of something they used to struggle with (e.g., tying their shoes, reading, column multiplication) that now feels like second nature. Help your child to understand that their frustration is temporary and that they just need to keep working toward that “Eureka” moment.

4. Yes, you’re tutoring, but give your child room to think.

Something we often see with new tutors is that, after asking a student a question, they don’t wait long enough before they jump back in. After a few beats of silence from the student, it can be tempting to jump in with a different question or to start solving the problem yourself. The next time you’re helping your child work through a tough problem, try asking one of the guiding questions (from Tip 2), and then wait…and keep waiting…and keep waiting – at least twice as long as you normally would. You may be surprised by what she comes up with when given room to think and put ideas together in her brain. This may actually be one of the hardest tips on this list to put into action. It involves fighting our own instincts to fill silence with words, but it pays off!

The next time your child comes to you for help in math, try putting just one of these tips into action, and see what happens. Also, keep a growth mindset for yourself. You may not be the best math tutor yet, but keep working at it. We’ve had a lot of experience tutoring students in Reasoning Mind Foundations, and we’ve learned that following these simple tips will help your child learn more and have a more positive experience while they do!


Tess Carrithers, Director of Tutoring at Reasoning Mind

About the Author
Tess Carrithers is Director of Tutoring at Reasoning Mind and leads the team responsible for providing direct, one-on-one virtual tutoring and mentoring to students. She holds a bachelor’s in linguistics from Rice University, and loves that the impact of Reasoning Mind goes beyond just teaching math—she hears from students every day who tell her they never knew the subject could be so much fun!

For more information about Reasoning Mind’s Online Tutoring + Instructional Support service for Foundations implementations, click here.

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