Parent-Teacher Connection

Family Math Night - A Success Story

By Eva Kubinski

Parent involvement. Ask teachers and parents to name an important factor in a student's academic success, and one of the most frequently named factors will be parents who value learning. Ask administrators about untapped resources for helping students, and many will name parents as educational partners. United States Secretary of Education Richard Riley has noted that "when educators, families, and communities work together, schools get better . . . students get the high quality education they need to lead productive lives" (1997).

There is ample information and documentation showing that children, especially those at risk for school failure, can benefit greatly from their parents' involvement in their education (Funkhouser & Gonzales, 1997). Parental lack of time due to longer work hours and multiple jobs, difficulty accessing the school during normal school hours, trouble finding or arranging transportation to school for meetings with teachers, and not having a strong command of the English language or understanding of American school expectations can be just a few of the barriers limiting or preventing parents from participating in the education of their children (Moles, 1996). In this article, I share with you the success story of a teacher who was able to draw parents in and give them tools and strategies to support their children's learning.

Family Math Night

Barb Parson is a kindergarten teacher at Carl Ben Eielson Elementary School in Fargo, North Dakota. As part of her Math Specialist Program, Mrs. Parson devised a practical, enjoyable, and successful way to involve her student's parents in their children's math learning.

When Mrs. Parson started her project, she wanted an activity that would involve her students and their parents in learning math concepts. After conducting background research into the topic, she found that quite a bit of study had been done looking at how parents could help children read; far less had been done looking at how parents could help their children learn math. Mrs. Parson was inspired to try a Family Math Night.

Her first Family Math Night was held several years ago in the spring. It was meant to act as a celebration and demonstration of what her kindergarten students had learned over the school year. Mrs. Parson shared activities and materials with parents to help them understand what math skills had been taught in the classroom. While it was well attended and parents indicated they enjoyed it, several commented that they wished that the Family Math Night had been held earlier in the school year.

The following fall, Mrs. Parson decided to expand Family Math Night by holding several Family Math Nights at the start of year. The fall Family Math Nights would allow Mrs. Parson to show parents the steps and process of how their children were going to learn math, with the children participating with their parents. Mrs. Parson's plan was to have parents play games and practice doing hands-on activities with their child during several monthly evening meetings in her classroom; the parents could then do those same activities at home with their child. Each activity or game was planned so parents could use regular household items and materials that could be bought for little or no money; in this way, cost was eliminated as an excuse to not do the activities.

Mrs. Parson began to instill the expectation that parents would attend from the start of the school year in order to foster high parent participation. She sent reminders to parents one week and one day before a Family Math Night. Mrs. Parson also worked to generate enthusiasm in her students about the upcoming activities, so that they would encourage their parents to attend. She tried to be flexible when childcare was unavailable and siblings might have to attend; no parent was prevented from participating when possible.

Mrs. Parson suspected that the math activities she used might be more "hands-on" than what parents had encountered when they were learning math concepts in school. One goal would be to help the parents understand how much learning was going on through the various learning games. She decided to share handouts that would tell the parents how the math activities taught a skill and how that skill related to National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Standards for Grades K-4.

How Did It Go?

During the first fall Family Math Night, the parents arrived with their children in Mrs. Parson's classroom. Mrs. Parson had parents go to activity stations with their children. When she had tried this set-up during the first spring Family Math Night, the students had been very successful at showing the parents how to do the activity. However, since this group of children was not yet familiar with the activities or with participating in stations, and since many of the parents did not read the instructions provided, the activities did not go smoothly.

During the next Family Math Night, one major element was changed. This time, students had practiced and played one or more of the available activities before Family Math Night. Their parents could start at one of the stations while waiting for everyone else to arrive. During this first activity, the children taught their parents how to do one specific activity, or how to play one game, keeping them occupied and the group organized.

When the parents and children had arrived, Mrs. Parson worked with them on eight different math learning activities that they could do at home. Rather than going to individual activity centers, everyone learned and did all eight activities together. The activities were not played or done to completion since Mrs. Parson's goal was to introduce parents to the activity. Each activity was tried and practiced as a group until all parents and children understood how it worked; then they moved on to the next activity.

At the end of the evening, each parent and child received a packet with directions and instructions for all the games or activities taught that evening. If applicable, Mrs. Parson provided "home extension ideas," suggestions on how parents could take the concept and use it in related areas or activities.

With the new structure, Mrs. Parson found the Family Math Night to be a bit more noisy, but the children were better able to stay on task. Children learned how to play the games or do the activities together and they used what they knew to teach their parents how to do the same activity.

Mrs. Parson was surprised by how well attended subsequent Family Nights were. The feedback she received from participating parents was very positive. At the end of her project she concluded that parents really did want to help their children with their learning; the opportunities to do so are not always provided for them.


If you are interested in trying a Family Math Night, here are some tips and sample activities that Mrs. Parson shared:

1. Set up the expectation that the parents will participate:

During the first four days of kindergarten, parents often come to school with their children. During that time, Mrs. Parson and other school staff have the opportunity to do academic screening, talk with parents about their children, and basically get to know each other. Last fall, Mrs. Parson took the opportunity to discuss her project with the parents as an opportunity to help them help their child. She developed and used an "Intent to Participate Form," which helped them to come regularly. Mrs. Parson gave them the Family Night dates so they could plan ahead. She always sent reminders the week before and day before a Family Night. And finally, Mrs. Parson would tell her students, ahead of time, what the various activities would be to get them excited about an upcoming Family Math Night.

2. Use inexpensive and easily accessible materials.

Mrs. Parson recommends that you choose materials that parents can find at home or buy cheaply.

Activity #1--Bowling. This is an activity that Mrs. Parson found to be a favorite with kids. The purpose is to help students learn how to subtract numbers from 6; however, it could be done with more or fewer jobjects depending on the number with which you want to practice subtraction.

Take six golf tees, and place them upside down on a table or board. The golf tees are your bowling pins; use a quarter as your bowling ball. Take a sheet of paper and write down six minus blank equals blank like this:

6 -____F = _____D

Write this several times on the sheet - this is your recording sheet. Set up the six "bowling pins." Share with your child that the number six is the same as the number of bowling pins with which you are starting. Then, take your quarter "bowling ball" and spin or slide it into the golf tees. The down arrow next to the number subtracted from six is where you record the number of pins that fell down; the up arrow is next to the space where you record the number of pins still standing. The up and down arrows can be used as visual cues as you work together to fill in the blanks for each frame!

However, filling in the numbers and the answer is not enough. You should talk your child through the problem aloud. For example, ask "How many did you knock down?" and "How many are still standing?" as the child records the answers in the blank spaces. Then, help them to talk through the problem, saying "Six minus--minus means take away.--the number that fell down. How many are left standing after?"

By doing this activity, you are starting to get your child used to the ideas and words involved in subtraction.

Note: Teachers and parents could use real bowling pins, but by using the golf tees, parents do not have to spend much money.

3. Emphasize the need to talk "mathematically."

One goal of the Family Math Night activities is to reinforce math terms and concepts covered in the classroom by having parents do the activities at home. Mrs. Parson notes that parents should be encouraged to use math words and to speak mathematically, so they can instill in their children the vocabulary and concepts of the mathematics lessons they do in the classroom.

Activity #2--Dice Game. The purpose of this activity is to help students learn to add up to the number twelve; again, it could be adapted down to 6 or up to 18 or more, depending on the number of dice you use.

Set up a sheet of paper with two columns and write the numbers 2 to12. The numbers can be written regularly, by "tracing" numbers or with a blank space next to the number to practice writing the numbers. Roll the dice. Count how many dots you have and color in the space in the column where you find the answer. You can also trace the correct number. So, if you roll a 4 then you trace the number 4 or color in the space next to the 4. You can also count the number of dots aloud, then say the number while tracing it; in this way you not only reinforce the number name, you get to practice writing numbers. When you do this activity with a partner, the first one to fill all the spaces in one of the columns wins the game. The level of accomplishment can be variable. Children can count dots if they are just learning to count; when they can recognize numbers, then you can try to teach them to count what number of dots are on the other die, in addition to those on the first die. For example, if you have four on one die, and three on the next, then after determining that there are four on the first, count the dots on the second die by saying "4 (for the number of dots on the first die,) 5, 6, 7." By saying the additional numbers aloud, you reinforce math words and encourage speaking mathematically.

4. Always include a math activity with food!

Mrs. Parson noted that food is always a favorite, and she always tries to have at least one math activity that results in something you can eat.

Activity #3--Candy Bar Split. The purpose of this activity is to demonstrate division.

Take a candy bar. Ask each family to figure out how to split it up among all the family members fairly. Then have them tell how much they each get. While the children might not fully understand division or fractions, parents can use this activity as a way to introduce both the words and concepts into their vocabulary. Another related activity could be to take a bag of a small candy such as "Gummy Bears" and decide how to share fairly, with some form of justification for that decision. What happens if there are a few left over? That introduces the concept of remainders. In the end, the goal is to give some sense of math words and a sense of division and fractions.

For Further Reading

There are many materials and books that teachers can access to get more information and ideas about parental involvement. For the full references and websites [if available] see the Reference and Resource section:

To learn more about math activities parents can do with their children, check out Helping Your Child Learn Math. It includes basic math concepts, different ways to do math, games and activities to do at home, math activities to do on a shopping trip, and math activities to do in the community. The activities are broken down for children in grades K through 8, and include the math concept the activity demonstrates or reinforces. It is free off the Internet or through the U.S. Department of Education's Publication Office at 1-877-4-ED-PUBS / Fax: 1-301-470-1244 or visit the new online ordering page at

To learn more about the experiences of newcomer parents as they try to navigate the American public school system, you may want to read Unfamiliar Partners: Asian Parents and U.S. Public Schools. A report from the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, it shares stories of Asian families coming from a diverse variety of backgrounds and experiences. Barriers to participation are balanced with descriptions of projects and strategies that are successfully developing home-school partnerships.

For examples of successful projects, check out Family Involvement in Children's Education: Successful Local Approaches: An Idea Book. Developed by the U.S. Department of Education, the Idea Book gives examples of successful local programs that have tried to address the barriers to parental and family involvement. It is free off the Internet or through the U.S. Department of Education's Publication Office [see above].

For ideas on how to train teachers to better facilitate family involvement, the U.S. Department of Education recently released New Skills for New Schools: Preparing Teachers in Family Involvement. It offers information on issues around training teachers for family involvement, and the attitudes, knowledge and expertise those teachers would need. It is free off the Internet or through the U.S. Department of Education's Publication Office [see above].

References and Resources

Funkhouser, J.E., & Gonzales, M.R. (1997). Family Involvement in Children's Education: Successful Local Approaches: An Idea Book. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Http://

Kanter, P.F. (1994). Helping Your Child Learn Math. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Http://

Moles, O. (1996). Reaching All Families: Creating Family-Friendly Schools. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

National Coalition of Advocates for Students (1997). Unfamiliar Partners: Asian Parents and U.S. Public Schools. Boston, MA: Author. Can be ordered from author at: National Coalition of Advocates for Students, 100 Boylston Street, Suite 737, Boston, MA 02116. Cost: $18.95 (includes s/h).

Riley, R.W. (1997). Foreword. In J.E. Funkhouser, & M.R. Gonzales, Family Involvement in Children's Education

Successful Local Approaches: An Idea Book. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Shartrand, A.M., Weiss, H.B., Kreider, H.M., & Lopez, M.E. (1997). New Skills for New Schools: Preparing Teachers in Family Involvement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Note: Thanks to Michele Vannote, Fargo School District, for suggesting Barb Parson for this article.


Eva Kubinski, MS, is a Training and Research Specialist for the Comprehensive Center for Region VI. She also coordinates services to CC-VI clients in North and South Dakota.
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