Is Your Child Behind in Math? Do a 10-Second Check-Up

by Laura Overdeck

We had everything going against math instruction this past year. Students had fewer hours of class, and much of it was remote. Classmates were robbed of their crowdsourced energy, which effectively stripped our already dry math curricula down to uninspiring worksheets. On top of it, most students already weren’t proficient in math. We forget that in 2019, only 40% of our country’s 4th graders were proficient. So it’s only natural to wonder: “Is my child behind in math?”

Of course, some learning did happen this past year, but how much? Educators and parents alike now wonder where kids are – but many schools are resisting standardized testing. We understand why schools worry about the pressure on students, and the huge logistical challenges to implement testing after our struggles to connect students electronically. It’s also very difficult to validate that the remote students are taking the test themselves.  

That said, at Bedtime Math Foundation, we also believe in the ability of data to inform us and eliminate doubt. As a parent, you want to know the truth about your child’s mastery, and fortunately, now you can take matters into your own hands. To ascertain your child’s progress in a fun, no-stress, non-invasive way, use our 10-Second Math Check-Ups

What are 10-Second Math Check-Ups?

The premise is simple: Math skills power us through daily life. So we’ve developed kid-appealing math questions that you can toss casually into real-life conversation, as you’re going through your family’s daily routine. Each question taps a specific standards-aligned math skill. If your child can answer the question, great – try the next one! If not, then your child hasn’t mastered the grade level skills and reached true fluency yet. Remember, we don’t take math class just to kill time; we learn math because it is an undercurrent of our natural thinking. Math is power. 

We recommend starting with the simplest questions first, the way we do in our Bedtime Math story-like math app. Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, suggests the same: Conquer the easy kindergarten questions to make sure those skills are solid, then build from there. All of it is playful for the kids – as we like to say, math is a treat, not a threat

Let’s get started! Here’s how to evaluate math skills in your child, broken down by grade level.

Kindergarten/Early First Grade 

1. Real Counting  

Ask your child: “Start counting at 6!” 

This sounds obvious, but it isn’t. Lots of kids seem like they can count, but many have simply memorized the number names in order, like the lyrics of a song. 

When kids can count on from any number as quickly as saying their name, then they’ve achieved automaticity. If they have to back up and start at 1, though, and whisper all the numbers up to 5 before saying “6, 7, 8…”  they’ve memorized strings of words instead of understanding quantities. And let’s be clear: if you don’t know what comes after 6, you don’t know how to add 1. It’s critical to master true counting, or cardinality, to move on to any subsequent skills. 

2. Eyeballing It 

Ask: “Quick, how many cookies are on the plate?” 

When you see a few objects, you can tell instinctively whether there are 4, or 5 without counting one by one. That gut reaction is called subitizing. An informal study of kindergartners found that the inability to subitize up to 5 objects at once predicted with 90% accuracy who would struggle with first-grade math. This is a skill we use all the time in real life, like quickly counting heads in a crowd. 

So try the above 10-second challenge, if you have cookies or other snacks in the house. Or toss 3 items on the counter and ask, “Quick, how many?” Watch to see whether your child counts the items individually, or can sense the correct number. Then put 6 items, then 2, then 4, then 5… Your child will likely get at least some right answers and enjoy this easy game – while you’re watching to see how large a quantity they can recognize without counting one by one. 

3. The Power of 10 

Ask: “What does the 1 in 14 mean?” 

A lot of kids memorize the names of numbers, but don’t understand place value. They can make it to 2nd or even 3rd grade not really knowing what the different digits in a 2-digit number represent. It’s the math equivalent of illiteracy: the lines are just meaningless squiggles. Ask your child to explain what the 1 in 14 means, and to line up Lego blocks, Cheerios or other multiple items to demonstrate. I’ve seen kids insist that the 1 just means 1, not 10 – but if that were true, wouldn’t the value of the number just be 1 + 4? Why don’t we call that number 5? It’s a great, fun little conversation to ensure your child grasps place value. It’s critical to any future computation. 

If your kid aced these challenges, awesome – time to level up again! If your child struggled, try our activities Gaga Over Graphs and Rock ‘n Roll Bingo for a little extra math practice.  

Second Grade 

1. The Fencepost Situation 

Ask: “If you went to camp every summer from when you were age 7 to the summer you were 12, how many summers did you go to camp?”  

The answer is actually 6. Yes, count it out: summer of 7, summer of 8…9, 10, 11, 12. Why does this happen? Because when you count items and include the very first, it’s like including zero – you’re including the “fencepost.” You are effectively subtracting out all the years you didn’t go to camp. So if you started at the summer of age 7, you carve out all the summers from age 6 downward. 

2. Age of Wisdom 

Ask: “How many years in total has everyone in our family lived?” 

This intriguing but simple question reveals whether your child can add 2-digit numbers, and remember an interim total while adding more numbers. We do mental math like this every day of our lives without noticing, like adding purchases in our head, or the number of minutes we have to squeeze in tasks before our next Zoom call. If your child struggles, you can break it down into pieces, and you can use M&Ms, Cheerios or other small objects to group 10s and 1s and bring the numbers to life. 

Third Grade 

1. Made It by a Hair 

Ask: “How long is your hair, to an eighth of an inch?” – and hand over a ruler. 

Even in the age of Minecraft and other cyberworlds, we still live in three dimensions. It’s critical to make sure kids can still use their hands to do basic spatial tasks, so we don’t become like the helpless blob-like people in the movie Wall-E. Using a ruler is an essential life skill, and a great opportunity to practice working with fractions. Measuring to the quarter of an inch is on standard for third grade, but so is understanding fractions to eighths. See if your child can combine the two skills.  

2. Room to Make a Mess 

Ask: “How big is your room? How many square feet is the floor?” 

This is a great real-life example of calculating area – and it’s one that will pique your child’s curiosity. Measuring the edges of a rectangle and multiplying to get the area shows how different multiplication is from addition. Multiplication is repeated addition, and it shows the power of numbers: we add groups of something again and again and again, many times. See if your child grasps that basic concept.  

A great follow-up question: if your room were 1 foot shorter but 1 foot wider, would you have more space or less? The answer is always more! – unless the room is already a perfect square. You can see this easily with a small example: A 1-by-5 rectangle has area 5, but a 2-by-4 rectangle has area 8, and a 3-by-3 square has the maximum of 9. The point being, your kid will end up grateful not to have more floor to clean. 

For fun practice with measuring, kids can try two of our math games: Flying Objects for the basics of feet and inches, and Take Flight for smaller measurements.  

3. Halloween Stash 

Ask: “If those M&M snack-size packs each have 34 M&Ms, how many M&Ms are in a dozen of those packs?” 

Whether you call it carrying or borrowing or regrouping, kids shouldn’t just move numbers around like puzzle pieces. They should totally grasp what’s going on. Ask this simple-real-life scenario, and watch how your child figures it out.  

By the way, there are lots of ways to reach the right answer. You might add up 10 34s and 2 34s, or you might multiply 30 12s in your head and then add 4 more 12s. No matter what, those 34 bags hold 408 M&Ms, and any route to get there shows math fluency. 

If your kid aced these challenges, kudos – time to level up! If your child needs to dig into this skill to master it, Khan Academy has a great video on multiplying two-digit numbers, and also has accompanying practice problems. 

Fourth Grade 

1. Living It Up 

Ask: “How long has your whole class lived if you added everyone’s ages?” 

Because fourth graders average about 10 years old, you can suggest that assumption – and suddenly this becomes a fun little place value problem. 24 kids have collectively lived about 240 years; 18 kids have lived 180 years; and so on. See if your child can figure this out on the fly, as this also reveals comfort level with another 4th-grade skill: estimation. The key is to ensure they understand why “tacking on a zero” is the same as multiplying by 10.  

2. The Best Inventions 

Ask: “The first candy bar ever was not a Hershey bar – it was invented by Joseph Fry in 1866! How long ago was that?” Or for the more gadget-oriented: “How long have we had phones? Alexander Bell invented the phone in 1876.” 

This exploration provokes curiosity about fun factoids while sneaking in 4-digit subtraction. Subtraction is more challenging for kids than addition, just like division is more challenging than multiplication; something about going downward is counterintuitive. Many students fake their way through 2-digit subtraction, memorizing that they carry a 1 to the singles place. But if they lack understanding of what is happening there, when they tackle 3-digit subtraction the wheels come off the cart. This little historical exploration will help you gauge their true mastery. 

If your child needs more work on these skills, Khan Academy’s videos on subtraction with regrouping and on multiplying by 10 may be very helpful. 

Fifth Grade 

1. Rock Star Artists 

Ask (while looking at a cellphone): “Some animator has a really cool job drawing pictures like that. How many pixels are in that picture? It’s 1920 pixels up and down and 1080 pixels across.” 

While multiplication is more intuitive for kids than dividing, it’s still critical to have a solid understanding of place value to multiply, say, 4 digits by 4 digits successfully. Students need to understand why they multiply the ones digit by the other factor, then the tens digit by that factor, and add up the resulting “partial products.” Otherwise the exercise feels like sliding puzzle pieces around the page meaninglessly. This quick question puts those skills to use on a real-life challenge that is highly relevant to app developers everywhere.  

Ask: “Here’s a cookie recipe. If you figure out how to make 1 1/2 times this, we’ll bake them!” 

Fractions are the bane of many people’s existence – and we mean adults too, not just kids. For decades our curricula have insisted on beginning fraction instruction with pie charts and pieces of a whole, when in real life we apply fractions almost entirely to numbers greater than 1, like amounts of money and numbers of people. Fraction instruction often amounts to expecting kids to memorize rules, such as “The bottoms need to be the same to add, but not to multiply.” When kids simply memorize the steps without understanding why, it sets them up for disaster as the rules accumulate.  

Instead, we want kids to grasp intuitively why multiplying by 1 1/2 is the same as taking one half, then adding it to the original – and why this reflects the same three parts (the halves) as in 3/2. Mastery of fractions is important in everyday life, and also lays the groundwork for success in algebra. Offer this tasty and tantalizing challenge to see how well your child has mastered basic manipulation of fractions. For more practice (and snacking), check out our game Trail Mix & Munch

Learn How to Evaluate Math Skills in Your Kid

As you navigate these challenges, give your kids lots of time to wrangle with the problem so they can experience the thrill of victory. It is important not to jump in to save them: a recent study reaffirmed that while we don’t want kids to face unsurmountable frustration, we also don’t want to step in and deter their perseverance. Allowing kids to tackle problems teaches them to be persistent and builds their confidence, since they see that you know they can do it.    

You can also download and explore the free Bedtime Math app for fun nightly practice: the app delivers a playful math fact or story every night followed by simple math questions that become more challenging as you go. Rather than “grading” kids on right or wrong answers, every question is a journey to the right answer.  As psychologist Carol Dweck says, “Don’t say you can’t do it. You just can’t do it yet.” 

Get the Free Bedtime Math App for Kids & Add Fun to Your Nightly Routine

Laura holds a B.A. in astrophysics from Princeton University, an M.B.A. in public policy from the Wharton School, and an honorary D. Eng. from Stevens Institute of Technology. When not playing with numbers, Laura likes quantifying the mysteries of chocolate and wine.

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