Supporting Exceptionally Mathematically Able Students - Parents and Carers

Stage: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5
Article by NRICH team

Being the parent or carer of an exceptionally mathematically able child brings its rewards and, sometimes, frustrations. If you are a highly competent mathematician yourself, then you may enjoy sharing the beauty and rigour of maths with your child. If you're not, how can you support them in a constructive way?

Supporting your child academically

Hopefully your child's school experience of maths is a positive one. If so, then effective support may be as simple as being positive about successes and understanding about challenges, and perhaps offering books, trips and other resources which will deepen understanding - see our resources for parents page for some suggestions.

Perhaps the school experience is not as academically challenging as your child would like. What can you do?

The first action is to talk to the teacher. It may be helpful to take in examples of the sort of maths activity your child likes to do at home for pleasure, so that the teacher can see the difference between the home and school experience. Possible options offered by the school could be:             

1. increasing the amount of homework - if your child isn't getting enough work this might be an option, but more of the same rarely hits the intellectual challenge button.

2. giving individual homework - this may be tailored to your child's interests, or be a more challenging version of what the rest of the class is doing. Either way it's an improvement and an acknowledgement that the school needs to respond to your request.

3. giving extra challenge when the child has completed the given class tasks - this may be enough to keep your child interested if they are a quick worker and can get through the class tasks in double quick time. If they're not quick though you're back to square one.

4. giving challenging tasks that are related to the class activity - this is a good option as it keeps your child working in the same context as the rest of the class and supports the classroom community.

5. giving material from the next year's curriculum - usually done alone and with little support as the teacher has the rest of the class to cope with. Able students are entitled to teaching as much as all the others so this is a bit of a cop-out unless your child likes working alone (and that's not good for them all the time - to do maths well it's good to talk maths.)

6. organising for your child to move to work with older students - both this and 5 above are acceleration and, organised properly, can be an effective way of meeting highly able students' needs. The three conditions for this to happen are that:

a) the child should have absolute mastery of the current content (ie should be capable of getting an A* or equivalent in any assessment)

b) that they are emotionally and socially able to cope with working with older students and

c) - most importantly - that there is a long term plan for the child's mathematical education. It's no use accelerating a 14 year old if, once they've got their GCSE top grade, they have to tread water for a year or so before pursuing more maths.  Or making a 9 year old work though the Key Stage 3 material if, when they get to secondary school, they have to do it all over again.

Supporting your child socially

Many young able mathematicians function perfectly well socially but there are, sadly, many who don't. This may be a function of maths being seen as a 'geeky' subject and class mates making life uncomfortable. Or it could be that the student finds it difficult to fit in to the social banter of an ordinary class because there's no-one who understands the way s/he thinks.

It's hard to change in-class environments but you could make the teacher aware of things you think might help - you know your child better than anyone else, so socially and emotionally you're well placed to know what might work. But you might also want to consider organising life outside school to include interactions with other highly able students - see our resources for parents page for some suggestions. Many able mathematicians now use the Ask NRICH site to share their mathematical discoveries and problems with other pupils. The site is moderated by a team of postgrads here at Cambridge University who respond to queries and offer helpful suggestions.

Tap into the UKMT network (for secondary), or the Royal Institution Masterclass series (primary and secondary) for opportunities to mix socially with other like-minded students. UKMT offers a strutured mentoring service, and finding an interested adult to talk maths with your child might be just what's needed to sustain interest. And for older students, new on the scene is Mathsjam, a new adult network that meets (usually in pubs) around the country.

And finally it may not be an option, but perhaps the last resort is to consider another school which might be more sympathetic to your child's abilities. It's an extreme action but it might make a huge difference.

Support for you

There are two websites that can give information, help, advice and support.

The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC)  'strives to support those who are directly involved with gifted children - parents, teachers, schools and medical professionals - as well as advising policy makers at national and local levels.' There are national and local events for students and children.

The Directgov Government website gives useful information about what you can expect from a school if your child is identified as 'gifted and talented'.