Will Using a Calculator Keep My Child From Getting Better at Math?

By Brendan R. Hodnett, MAT
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Q

My 10-year-old was told he can use a calculator at school. Won’t that make him fall further behind in math? What about at home? Should I let him use it there, too?

A

Many families have questions about when or if kids should use a calculator. That’s especially true if their child struggles with math. Even if the school approved using a calculator as a support tool (also called an accommodation), they still worry it will keep their child from getting better at math.

In fact, it’s the opposite. When kids struggle with basic math, it slows them down in class and on homework. It also puts up a roadblock to learning more advanced math concepts.

A calculator is a support that helps bridge this gap. It lets students continue to work on the same things their classmates are working on.

But that doesn’t mean a calculator should be allowed in every situation.

When kids are practicing or being graded on doing an operation, they need to understand the process and show it step by step. So in this case, for kids who get formal supports, I’d word the accommodation this way: “The calculator should be available for support unless the operation is the objective.”

Here’s an example. If kids are learning to multiply three-digit numbers, they wouldn’t use a calculator for support. Instead they can refer to a multiplication chart for basic math facts. That way, they still show they understand the step-by-step procedure.

But say a middle-schooler needs to solve for the area of two-dimensional shapes. In that case, a calculator should be available. The teacher is looking to see if students know the correct way to solve for area, not if they know their multiplication facts.

A calculator doesn’t take the place of learning. Kids need to continue to learn and practice math operations without it, too. This should be done in low-stress, non-timed situations, like small group instruction. That way, the focus is on progress, not on grades or finishing the task.

When you practice at home, start with facts your child has mastered. (Operations with 2s, 5s, and 10s are usually easiest.) That can help kids feel more confident when they move on to harder numbers.

If your child is working on homework that requires calculations, try offering tools like a multiplication chart, a number line, or a 100s chart.

Struggling with basic math skills can be very stressful for kids. Getting the right type of support at the right time lets them work on skills without too much stress. And that can boost confidence.


Do you have a struggling math student? Find out why some kids have trouble with math.

About the Author

About the Author

Brendan R. Hodnett, MAT 

is a special education teacher in Middletown, New Jersey, and an adjunct professor at Hunter College.

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