Is an evening of math homework with your unhappy middle schooler about as appealing as listening to a symphony of fingernails drawn across a blackboard?

Who can blame you?

If math was never your favorite subject, diving back into the world of cryptic textbook instructions can raise those old familiar feelings: sweat prickling on your brow and the urge to run into your bedroom, slam the door, and play guitar badly. If you consider yourself a natural mathlete, helping a tween who doesn’t share your enthusiasm for delectable pi or irresistable asymtotes can drive you to equal levels of distraction. It was all very well breaking down the steps of long division and simple fractions, but as the math gets more difficult so do the challenges of the parent just trying to help.

What can you do to rescue a middle-schooler muddled by math? The answers are as simple and elegant as the Pythagorean theorem, but implementing them is no less weighty.

Keep in touch with the teacher

Email makes staying in contact much easier than when you were in school. Don’t be shy about letting your child’s teacher know that you’re concerned about her progress in math and whether she’s falling behind. “Savvy, experienced teachers regularly communicate with parents,” says Francis “Skip” Fennell, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Develop math-oriented traits

To succeed in math and college-level classes, your child needs to take responsibility for his education and learn to persevere when tasks are time-consuming and complicated. He can start now by:

  • Working independently
  • Reviewing and correcting his own work
  • Using available resources — class time, tutoring, study groups — and seeking help when necessary
  • Trying a variety of approaches to solve a multi-step problem

“Plenty of faculty have told me that if their students came in with these attributes, they could teach them math,” says Bill Moore, director of the Transition Mathematics Project, a private-public partnership in Washington state that is working to make sure students are prepared for the transition from K-12 to college math. The project has developed a list of college-readiness math standards, which includes student attributes. (To see this PDF file, you’ll need Adobe Acrobat Reader, which you can download here.)

Professor W. Stephen Wilson, who teaches freshman calculus at Johns Hopkins University, says that the ability to pick up a math textbook and learn independently from it is essential: “I have 150 students. There is no one-on-one here. If students don’t learn to read a math textbook after a month of school, they’re lost.”

Look into tutoring

Talk to the teacher, counselor, or principal if your child is struggling. Ask about after-school or community tutoring options. Or get together with other families and share the costs of hiring a private tutor who can supplement classroom instruction. Don’t delay in hopes that the problem will resolve itself. Math is cumulative, and the further behind your student falls, the more discouraging it will be for him to try to catch up.

Discuss math-related careers

Or browse through a college catalog, where you’ll see that math is a “hidden prerequisite” for a number of classes and degrees in non-technical fields. Social workers, for example, need to take statistics. Business majors need college calculus.

Point out real-life problems that require mathematical thinking

Consumers can’t make smart choices about their cell phone service providers without math. Or evaluate the claims of pharmaceutical advertisers about a new asthma drug. Or calculate how long it will take to pay off a 30-year, $500,000 mortgage with a down payment of $60,000 and a fixed annual interest rate of 7%.

Examples like these will help demonstrate to your child that learning math is more than memorizing a set of rules disconnected from real life. “It’s as much about thinking mathematically about the situations students are going to encounter,” says Moore.

Watch your attitude

If you respond to your child’s struggles over a math problem with “I was never good at math either,” you’re making a powerful statement. Your child may pick up the widely held view that some people can do math and others can’t and that luck and genetics have more to do with math success than effort. It’s socially acceptable for people to say they don’t understand math, says Fennell, and that’s not helping students in a world that requires more math skill than ever before.

“A parent will say to a math teacher, ‘I was never particularly good at math,'” says Fennell. “That same parent would never say, ‘I don’t know how to read.'”

Find out what your school is doing to recruit and retain good math teachers

Moore says he hears the complaint that too many math teachers have just one way of teaching. “If it’s not working their only solution is to talk slower or louder. What we need are for more teachers to have a broader repertoire of strategies for approaches they can try,” he says.

The shortage of math and science teachers has made recruiting and retention a challenging part of a principal’s job. Find out what your school is doing to hire and keep great teachers — those with a solid background in math and experience with a variety of strategies for engaging students in the subject.