Engaging families in mathematics education

Fostering school-home partnerships is pivotal in enhancing an inclusive education beyond the classroom, and in turn supports mathematics learning in the classroom.

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Families are a child's first educator and this role does not halt on day one of school. Families lay the foundation for future educational success. They make a difference to a child's attitude, motivation to learn, and academic achievement through showing their positive attitude towards mathematics and being engaged in mathematics and numeracy at home.

However, these positive attitudes and actions are not so easy to achieve for all families, and this is where teachers and schools can help. Fostering school-home partnerships is pivotal in enhancing an inclusive education beyond the classroom, and in turn supports mathematics learning in the classroom.

But, how are schools encouraging families to engage in mathematics, and capitalising on support from home?

Themes in good practice

A synthesis of contemporary literature found four themes are common to good practice in engaging families effectively in mathematics education:

  • School to home communication
  • Foster respectful relationships
  • Positive attitudes to mathematics
  • Demystify mathematics and build confidence

The above themes come with unique challenges, so recommended actions and helpful tips for each theme are provided to show how teachers and schools can encourage families to engage more with mathematics.

Key terms and definitions

In this monograph, the words "family" or "families" includes parents, caregivers, guardians, and family members who can help children to learn mathematics. 'Beyond school / classroom' means learning undertaken outside the school and classroom, for example at home or in the community.

"Numeracy comprises the knowledge, skills, behaviours and dispositions that students need in order to use mathematics effectively in a wide range of situations." - Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority

Translating themes into practice

The four key themes are the progressive steps teachers and schools take to engage families in mathematics education.

First and foremost is to establish authentic, purposeful two-way communication. Reach out to families to start a conversation about mathematics and ask, 'What are three things you would really like your child to accomplish in mathematics this year?'

Listen for what is being said and not being said. It is essential for respectful relationships that we listen and consider others' opinions. When educators build trust with families, all feel open to share positive and negative attitudes towards mathematics and its teaching. A question to consider for both teachers and families is, "What beliefs about mathematics do you pass on to those around you?"

Often negative attitudes stem from anxiety and apprehension about mathematics and bad experiences in school. We demystify mathematics and build confidence for families through an explanation of contemporary mathematics classroom practices. Busting some common mathematics myths sets us on the path to stronger school to home partnerships. 

School to home communication

Meaningful communication between families and teachers is central for building successful school-home partnerships (Emerson, Fear, Fox, & Sanders, 2012).

One-way communication

There are multiple, effective ways educators can communicate school mathematics to families, e.g. Problem of the week in newsletters, take-home games, parent-teacher interviews, etc.

This one-way communication from school to home is understandable, as many families are keen but unsure how to assist their child due to being uninformed about contemporary mathematics classroom practices (Muir, 2012).

Two-way communication

However, establishing two-way communication that values the input of both the school and families has potential to enhance a child's learning in mathematics further. A Tasmanian school had success with building communication through take-home activities designed for students to engage in weekly activities with their families.

The accompanying family feedback forms provided unique observations about their child's mathematical understanding which the teacher could capitalise on and build into the class practice (Muir, 2012).

Sharing successes and challenges

Encouraging families to share anecdotes and activities they tried at home in a monthly Maths at Home Letter, compiled by volunteer parents, furthered communication not only between schools and families, but between families (Kliman, 1999).

Families are a rich source of everyday mathematics within varied contexts. Through feedback on discoveries during direct or indirect mathematical opportunities at home, families provide the school with valuable insights into the child's learning.

Foster respectful relationships

Forming productive relationships between home and school has potential to improve students' achievements in mathematics (Baker & Street, 2003). This complex and difficult task takes time and effort beginning with forging mutual trust and respect (Bull, et al., 2008).

Finding a shared purpose

The starting point for building authentic links with families is finding a shared mathematical purpose, perhaps reducing energy use at home and school.

Applying learning to real life contexts

Families help students understand the calculations needed to check a home electricity bill and discuss ways to reduce the electricity usage. Students share these discussions with their classmates and apply this understanding to school energy usage.

Ensure students are included

Students are vital in forging respectful partnerships, since they must be interested and motivated to try out suggested activities at home with their families (Perkins & Knight, 2014).

Activities are more likely to be well received if they are purposeful, fun and achievable (Goos & Jolly, 2004), as well as sensitive to families' feelings and knowledge of mathematics (Berkowitz et al., 2015).

Positive attitudes to Mathematics

The way families and teachers view mathematics influences student engagement and success in mathematics. Views on how it should be taught and learned matter.

These views influence students' ideas about their capacity to learn mathematics and are closely aligned with parental ideas about learning mathematics (e.g., Sheldon et al., 2010).

In mathematics, students who think they cannot do mathematics are most often unsuccessful, whereas those who have a positive mindset and recognise that mathematics can be challenging are more likely to persevere and succeed.

Encourage opportunities to succeed

The importance of teachers and families working together to ensure high expectations and positive attitudes toward mathematics in and beyond school for all learners should not be underestimated. We need to actively encourage opportunities to 'see', 'do', and 'talk about' mathematical activities and examples of mathematics in our world to develop positive attitudes toward mathematics in teachers, students and families.

For example, encourage students and families to think about mathematics when travelling, cooking, playing games, or shopping; recognise that these activities involve doing mathematics, and to talk to each other about this mathematics.

Coming up with real life applications for Maths

Families can work together to plan a trip to school or the market or the park. Families can discuss what the 30% likelihood of rain tomorrow morning means. Making constructions from blocks, or scaling up a recipe for four to feed ten, is doing mathematics together. Holding a Family Maths night, or families playing games together, are great ways to develop positive attitudes to mathematics.

Research shows that positive attitudes can lead to improved enjoyment and success (Emerson, et al., 2012) as a child becomes more motivated to learn. Families may need support to overcome anxiety and avoidance (Berkowitz et al., 2015).

Talking positively about mathematics can have a positive influence on their child's attitude toward mathematics. Whilst families are not responsible for teaching their child school mathematics, they can play an important role in working together with the teacher and child to help them learn, and apply mathematics to everyday situations. 

Demystify Mathematics and build confidence

A family's role in their child's mathematics learning is important (Cai, 2003). Many families want to help their child learn mathematics (Safford-Ramus, Misra, & Maquire, 2016), however, they often lack the confidence to do so (Goos & Jolly, 2004; Muir, 2012).

Families may have a limited understanding of contemporary ways of teaching and doing mathematics, and/or anxiety about their mathematical knowledge, particularly if they were taught procedures without reasons (Samson, 2004). Knowing only 'how' makes it hard to help others, especially when the way 'how' may have changed. Unfortunately, teachers are not always sure how best to support and encourage families (Sheldon et al., 2010).

Developing a connected approach with parents

One approach which proved successful in demystifying mathematics and building confidence in a Western Australian school was inviting families to identify mathematical topics for discussion about contemporary mathematics practices during fortnightly maths for parents sessions (Goos & Jolly, 2004). 

Trying Maths walls

Maths walls are another tremendous way to showcase how mathematics is learned in schools today and to see that teachers value all learning attempts, even when this includes errors or is incomplete. This helps families see that reasoning about mathematics and explaining one's thinking are an essential part of learning mathematics in today's world.

Issues and challenges

Teachers and families have long known how helpful it is for families to regularly read to children and listen to children read as an important component of developing literate students. The same practices need to be extended to mathematics, with families engaged in a range of mathematical activities together (playing games, shopping, cooking) as well as supporting current school mathematical work. 

Several barriers must be addressed when developing strategies to engage families in the mathematics education:

  • Teachers and families expect families to read to students, and the challenge is to build that expectation for mathematics as well
  • Shared awareness that families can and do help with mathematics
  • Awareness that teachers' and families' attitudes to mathematics impacts on engagement and success
  • Families' knowledge of mathematics
  • Families' feelings about mathematics
  • Knowledge of effective approaches to engaging families
  • Challenges to some teachers' traditional beliefs on the teaching and learning of mathematics

School-wide approaches to leveraging the potential of school-home partnerships provide opportunities to engage families in their children's mathematics learning. Respectful, two-way communication ensures a seamless flow of information between home and school, supporting students in their learning.

Building families' awareness of contemporary practices and approaches to teaching mathematics may assist in breaking down the barriers between home and school and boost families' confidence to assist in the learning. Fostering positive attitudes to mathematics both at school and at home counters negative societal views of mathematics. 


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