The transition from primary to secondary school mathematics can be a challenging experience for both children and their parents. Many students often complain about the significant change between middle school (or sometimes elementary school, if it goes up to Grade 8) and high school. Some students may feel that the difficulty of the material has increased, and others may have a hard time keeping up with the pace of the school. As a result, some students might see their grades drop in high school. For both parents and students alike, the transition to high school is typically filled with apprehension.
The shift to high school math is not merely about progressing from one grade level to another; it represents a substantial change in educational expectations and content. While primary school mathematics focuses on building foundational skills in arithmetic, geometry, and other topics, high school math tends to be more abstract, complex, and fast-paced. It involves more sophisticated algebra that cannot be easily visualized. The complexity of questions that students are expected to solve also increases. High school math involves longer questions that require multiple steps for their solutions. Students are expected to develop the ability to think more deeply and solve challenging questions as well.
This means that as students enter high school, they are expected to have mastered essential mathematical concepts and be prepared to apply them to more advanced and intricate problems. If your child is transitioning to high school soon, how can you help them prepare so that they don’t become overwhelmed by high school math? I’ve come up with several ways you can help your child prepare for the challenges of high school math.
Preparing Your Child for High School-Level Math
There are several ways in which parents can help their child transition effectively to secondary school math:
1. Strengthen Fundamental Arithmetic Skills
One of the most crucial steps in preparing your child for high school math is to reinforce basic algebra and math principles. High school math encompasses more intricate mathematical operations, and it is essential for students to enter this stage with a solid foundation in basic arithmetic. This is because understanding high school math concepts relies on understanding previous math concepts, and since high school math operations tend to be more extended, sometimes involving a dozen steps, students will need to be quick and precise in carrying out individual calculations.
The term used to describe fluency in mathematical operations is automaticity. When a child has achieved automaticity, they can perform calculations quickly and accurately without putting in much thought. This ability serves as a significant advantage when the student is required to perform more complex calculations, as they will not be weighed down by basic arithmetic at each step.
How you can help:
- Identify and address any gaps your child might have from elementary and middle school level math. Collaborate with your child’s teacher or tutor to ensure they comprehend math concepts from these earlier stages, as this understanding is a prerequisite for more advanced math.
- Assist your child in developing automaticity by providing ample practice opportunities in basic operations such as arithmetic, operations with fractions, percentages, ratios, and number patterns. Math apps, games, and workbooks can serve as excellent resources for your child to hone these skills.
2. Develop Good Study Habits and Time Management
As high school brings increased academic demands and responsibilities, it is crucial for students to develop strong study habits and effective time management skills. Your child will likely be juggling many challenging courses, extracurricular activities, and possibly a part-time job. Assignments, projects, and tests will be more frequent in high school, making it essential for students to develop consistent study schedules, refine their study skills, and improve their organizational abilities as they enter high school.
How you can help:
- Establish a regular time for reviewing or completing homework. This enables your child to develop consistent study habits and eventually create their own scheduled study time.
- Encourage your child to use an agenda or planner. They can note down the dates of assignments or tests, helping them develop a habit of effectively organizing their schedules in high school.
- Encourage your child to create a to-do list. The planner can include things your child wants to achieve daily or weekly, such as homework, projects, or test review. As your child completes the items, they can check them off, providing a sense of accomplishment.
3. Encourage a Growth Mindset
High school mathematics can be quite challenging. So, it is crucial for students to develop a growth mindset to effectively handle these challenges. A growth mindset refers to the belief that one’s intelligence and abilities are malleable and they can be improved through dedication, perseverance, and learning from failures. In other words, being smart isn’t a fixed quality that you either have or don’t have. This mindset is particularly important for high school students because it makes them more resilient and willing to take on challenges. It is almost a certainty that your child will encounter challenges in high school and will fail at certain tasks, even if your child is the most brilliant child there is. However, if your child embraces growth mindset, he or she is more likely to overcome these obstacles and emerge stronger.
How you can help:
- Focus on praising your child’s efforts and resilience rather than solely emphasizing grades and results. The process of learning is just as crucial as getting the final answer. If your child performed poorly on a test or assignment despite putting in genuine effort, recognize their hard work and treat the failure as an opportunity to learn. Collaborate with your child to figure out how to improve in the next test or assignment.
- Be mindful of the language you use when praising your child. Avoid saying things like, “Wow, you’re so smart!” as this type of praise may inadvertently instill the idea that being “smart” is an unchangeable quality that your child possesses. Children who view themselves as “smart” may avoid challenges or withdraw effort out of fear that failure could shatter their self-image of being smart. Instead, praise your child’s effort and progress, emphasizing the progress that they have made.
- Be cautious when criticizing your child for failing at a task. Refrain from saying things like, “Math isn’t for everyone, so don’t feel bad,” even if it’s meant to encourage your child. This kind of statement sends the message that your child is innately bad at math and that this is something they cannot change. Instead, reassure your child that anyone can improve their math skills through effort and persistence. Encourage your child to think about what they can do differently next time to achieve better results.
4. Nurture Self-reliance and Independence
As children transition from primary to secondary school, developing self-reliance and independence becomes crucial for academic success. High school is a hectic place, with students juggling multiple assignments, projects, tests, extracurricular activities, and more. Gone are the days when they could simply follow instructions, like completing homework, to succeed. High school students need to take a proactive approach to their academics, which includes creating their schedules, working independently, and making choices about their academic pathways.
Studies indicate that, while homework may be effective for elementary school children, it does not necessarily lead to better grades for high school students. Generally, there are two types of students: those who study “reactively” by only doing the tasks they are told to do by their school or tutors, and those who study “proactively” by being aware of their test schedules, identifying their areas of weakness or gaps in knowledge, and creating and following a study plan accordingly.
High-achieving students are often the “proactive” learners because their self-reliance and self-knowledge allow them to study more efficiently than their “reactive” counterparts. These proactive students can prioritize their study materials by skipping the topics that they have already mastered and focusing on reinforcing areas in which they need improvement. Additionally, they are not hesitant to ask for help when they need it. In contrast, a student who studies “reactively” might leave their assignments to the last moment, fail to do extra review before the test, or fail to ask questions. Thus, this kind of independence and self-reliance is something you want to foster in your child as they progresses into high school.
How you can help:
- Stop doing everything for your child. Often, parents have the overwhelming urge to “help” their child. However, excess help takes away opportunities for your child to think, plan, or make decisions independently. They will expect to be told what to do and expect to be helped when there is a difficulty.
- Let your child fail. Failure is a great teacher for a child. By failing, your child learns what they did wrong and how they can do it right next time. Learning experience gained from failure is much more persistent than simply following an instruction. As long as the failure is not grievous in nature – that is, do not result in physical injury or hurting another person – it can be a great learning opportunity for your child.
- Learn to sit back and watch. Resist the temptation to give unsolicited advice or help. Be okay with imperfect outcome as long as your child is putting in earnest effort. This is a skill that many parents have to learn, especially if they are highly educated or highly capable. If your child requires assistance, they will come to you for help. Until then, let them try their best on their own in order to build independence and self-reliance.
The transition from primary to secondary school math can be both challenging and rewarding for students and their parents. By recognizing the differences between the two levels, reinforcing foundational skills, developing good study habits, encouraging growth mindset, and fostering self-reliance and independence, parents can help ensure their child’s smooth and successful transition to high school math.
Richard Zhang, M.Ed., is an educator and a software developer with a Masters degree in education from University of Toronto and an immense passion for education and learning. Until the pandemic, Richard owned an award-winning learning centre in Toronto. For 15 years, he has taught and mentored hundreds of elementary, middle school, and high school students succeed in academics. He is also an app developer specializing in web and mobile application in educational and business sectors.