Tips for Surviving Algebra 1

Okay folks, the time has come. Your child has entered high school, and that can be a terrifying time for everyone involved. Students these days have a lot to worry about in their first year of high school. Embarrassing mess-ups in gym class, puberty-induced acne scars, and worst of all, the dreaded “A” word. I am speaking, of course, about Algebra. It may have been a while since you’ve encountered this mathematical beast, but if you’re like a lot of parents, you can remember it just clearly enough to know that you hated it. You’ve known for a while now that your child would have to defeat this dragon, and the thought has filled you with dread. Never fear! I’m here to help. Here are my top 2x+4=18 tips for Surviving Algebra 1.

Attitude is Everything

As I said before, having a child in Algebra 1 class can be a horrifying experience for everyone involved. You child might get frustrated, or anxious, or some combination of the two, and that’s okay. Expressing these negative emotions is good for a child’s mental health. You, however, are different. You may very well experience these emotions as well, but I would encourage you not to express them too much in front of your child. It is very important at this time for you to model a positive attitude. When your child vents to you about their mathematical frustrations, listen to them enough to validate their feelings, but don’t commiserate. Instead, crack your knuckles and get to work. Find some answers, if you can. Figure out how to do the problem yourself, and show your child. Offer helpful advice, such as asking their teacher for help or starting a study group. Don’t let your child slide too far into a pit of despair. Instead, stay above it, and throw them a rope!

Build from the Ground Up

As a subject, math has a tendency to build upon itself. As with any building, a student’s understanding of math will crumble to the ground if it doesn’t have a solid foundation. As such, it is absolutely crucial that your child have a solid grasp of the basics before they try to tackle more complicated concepts. In Algebra 1, the list of “basics” contains only one item: equations. Most of what your child will do in Algebra 1 will revolve around the concept of equations. As such, to ensure your child’s success, it is extremely important to make sure they have a solid understanding of equations. It’s not enough to make sure they know how to solve an equation; they need to understand what that means. The solution to an equation can be seen as a point on a line, as a pair of numbers (x,y) for which a statement is true, or as an output associated with a given input (or vice-versa). Fortunately, most of this should have been covered in 8th grade. Sometimes, however, it can be swept under the rug. Encourage your child to dig deep for this fundamental understanding, and to explore the true meaning of equations.

Praise Hard Work

Students, schools, and teachers these days spend too much time worrying about grades. A grade is meant to be an objective measure of a student’s understanding, and yet it has come to mean so much more. It can mean the difference between attending a good college and not, and for that reason they are important. But grades have taken on an even deeper psychological meaning for our kids: children have come to understand that they get praised when they get a good grade, and reprimanded when they get a bad grade. See the problem there? What was meant to be a litmus test to indicate the presence or lack of a problem in understanding has instead become a crystal ball for kids to see their disciplinary future. Kids get so anxious over their grades that they have trouble sleeping or studying, which adversely affects, among other things, their grades! There’s an easy solution: forget the grades. When your child comes home with an A, praise not the A itself, but the hard work your child did to earn that A. When your child comes home with a B, praise their work, and encourage them to strive for perfection. When your child comes home with a D, don’t yell at them; instead, figure out why. A D is not a reason for punishment, it is an indication that something is wrong with your child’s understanding of the material. Help your child figure out where they went wrong, so they don’t make the same mistakes again.

Practice Makes Perfect

Surviving Algebra - practice makes perfect

The phrase may be overused to the point of cliché, but it still rings true: practice really does breed perfection. If your child doesn’t instantly understand a concept, they need to practice until they do. Equations in particular should be practiced to the point of near-nausea. However, be careful here. If a child doesn’t have a good understanding of a concept, and they practice that concept, then there is a good chance they’ll practice that concept incorrectly, and thus gain an incorrect understanding. As such, you need to make sure your child is practicing correctly before you turn them loose on a boatload of practice problems. If you’re not sure how to do a certain kind of problem, find a tutor or ask your child’s teacher for some sample problems with detailed solutions. If you choose the latter, make sure you’re polite with that request. Teachers love when parents get involved, but hate when they appear to insist that their child’s needs be placed before all others.

Learn to answer “the question”

There is one question that every student has asked at some point in their lives. It’s a question math teachers have come to dread. The question is simply, “When am I ever going to use this?” When your child asks this question, take it as a warning sign. It means they’re questioning the validity of a concept, or even math in general, and it can be a sign that they’re beginning the processes of giving up. There are two things you should avoid doing: 1) Not answering the question, and 2) Answering with something like “you need to know this math so that you can learn other math.” If this question goes unchallenged, the student will almost certainly give up. If a child is told that this math is only a gateway for harder math, then there’s a chance their frustration will build until it reaches a boiling point, at which time there’s no hope they’ll ever learn to enjoy math. Instead, learn to give a satisfactory answer. Come up with a way to use whatever math it is that they’re asking about. If you can’t think of anything, tell them you’re not sure, but you’ll figure it out and tell them later. If you do that though, then it’s on you to actually follow through on that. You can again turn to help from their teacher. Teachers have lots of experience answering that question, and they’ll probably be willing and able to help you out.

Use Math in Real Life

Surviving Algebra - Real Life

This goes hand in hand with the previous tip. Pay attention to the math that your child is learning, and whenever possible, ask them to use it to help you solve real problems. Going on a vacation? Ask them to help you calculate the cost. Buying supplies for a party? Ask them to help you find the best deals. Comparing health insurance plans? Paying your taxes? Got a career that involves math in some way? You get the idea. By asking your child for help with your real-world math problems, you accomplish three things: 1) You forever vanquish that “when am I ever going to use this” question 2) You expose them to real-world issues now so they’re more prepared when they have to enter the real world on their own, and 3) By asking for their help, you help them feel like a valued part of your family’s problem-solving process. It is particularly easy to find real-world uses for equations and inequalities; once you get used to looking for them, you’ll see them everywhere! Remember, nothing simulates the real world like the real world itself!

Engage

If you did your math right in the introduction to this post, then you already know this is the last tip, so it makes sense that this tip really ties it all together. Engage in your child’s learning whenever possible! Algebra is a difficult topic to tackle alone; your child will have a much better chance of success if they have someone struggling alongside them. Fearlessly engage whenever possible! Do your best to learn the math with them. Model good study habits by finding answers rather than giving up. Get them to use it in the real world as much as possible. Use the internet to find real-world uses for whatever they’re learning. If they struggle with things you can’t explain, (politely) ask their teacher for help. Encourage them to make study groups, invite the study group to your house, and make/order some kind of tasty snack. See what I mean? Really get in therebecome an active participant in your child’s learning, and you and your child can survive Algebra 1 together.

Surviving Algebra