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The Early Years: Teaching Young Children Math Concepts
Sep 30

The Early Years: Teaching Young Children Math Concepts

By Elephant Learning | Teaching Math

Studies show that early math skills have far-reaching benefits beyond just school performance, so naturally you want to teach your child math concepts early to give them the best edge throughout their life and career.

But when do “the early years” begin? How early is too early? And, for that matter, where do you start when the time comes? Here is everything you need to know about teaching early math, from understanding when they’re ready to learn, to tips for teaching foundational math concepts.

Is My Child Ready to Learn Math Concepts?

Everything depends on the student. We’ve had two-year-olds in the Elephant Learning system that have thrived, but we’ve also had two-year-olds in the system that just aren’t ready yet. 

You have to judge your child’s readiness and honestly ask yourself, are they ready for this step? These are crucial years for a child. In some cases, they’re still learning to speak. Can they even say numbers? What’s the point in asking them “how many” in a math problem, if they can’t even articulate an answer?

Ask yourself: 

  • Can your child say numbers out loud?
  • Can your child see numbers as numerals and then say them?
  • Can your child begin counting?

If yes, great. Your child is likely ready to learn math concepts. But if not, no worries. There’s honestly no hurry and here’s why: It’s very common for us to have students in the Elephant Learning system at ages four or five years who start at the very basic counting skills, but then move on to multiplication and more difficult concepts in the span of three to six months. 

The First Step: Identifying What Your Child Already Knows

Regardless of your child’s age, when you want to begin teaching them a math concept, you have to identify the starting point of your child’s comprehension. This way, you can ensure you’re not wasting your time or confusing your child. 

Related: How to Evaluate Your Child’s Math Skills Based on Language 

Use language to find out what level your child is at. What words do they understand and not understand? 

If you’re teaching your child during their early years, around the toddler age, it’s likely that if your child is familiar with ANY math concept, it’s going to be counting (and if they’re not, as stated above, that’s fine, too — there’s more on how to introduce them to counting below). 

How can you test your child’s counting abilities? First, ask your child how many items are in a group. Can they count them?

Then, take the evaluation a step further and ask your child to produce, rather than just count. Have them separate out a certain number of objects out of a larger group of objects. This tests whether or not your child further comprehends the concept of counting and being able to stop counting once they reach the desired number. 

Finally, you can then see if your child is able to “count on,” by asking them to start counting beyond a number other than zero (i.e. “How many would I have if I had two more than the eight you just gave me?” If they can “count on,” then they’ll start counting at nine. If not, they’ll begin counting the total number of objects all over again, from one).

Does your child know how to count? If so, then you can move on to other concepts. If not, here’s how to get them started. 

Related: The Three-Step Method to Teaching Math

Teaching Your Child to Count 

When teaching children to count, it’s all about definition, recognition and production

The first step is being able to define a number. Can your child recognize a numeral? Can they say the word? 

Show your child a singular object, call it “one” and show them the numeral “1.” Use the language in context and help them learn to define numbers. If they’ve mastered this first definition phase, they’ll be able to say the word “one,” recognize the symbol “1” and say “one” when they see the symbol, as well as recognize one object. 

Once you’re confident your child understands the definition of “one,” then you can test their recognition. This test is as simple as holding up fingers and asking, “How many?” It’s asking “how many” all throughout your daily life. If you see them counting to get the answer, they’re showing recognition. 

After your child can recognize numbers and counting, move on to production. Ask them to give you a certain number of objects. If they’re able to slide over that number of objects and stop there, then they’re able to produce and they’ve mastered counting. 

In the Elephant Learning system, we start by teaching children to count with one to five. After they get to a certain level of recognition, we start teaching them to identify five through 10 while they’re learning to produce in quantities of one to five. After they can recognize those numbers, we move on to double digits: 11, 12 and 13. Then we can start to establish the rest of the teens and up to 20.

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Stay Calm Through the Learning Process

The one thing you want to make sure you do during this process is to stay calm. Keep in mind, children at this age are prone to forget math concepts from day to day. If, for example, your child learns how to “count on” on Tuesday, but then can’t recall how to do so on Wednesday, it’s no big deal. 

Additionally, children of this age often have issues with their attention spans. Just be aware of your child’s attention span and don’t try to push them beyond it. Hold their attention as long as possible, but don’t force anything — that can just make them tired and cranky. 

Remember: This is hard work for children. Counting on your fingers seems easy to me and you, but for a child, it’s a challenge. 

The key point is to understand where your child is and work with them where they are. If you start to challenge them and they don’t respond positively, just take things back a step and keep practicing. The more you practice a math skill, the faster they’ll learn it.

The Result?

If you can do all of the above and get your child counting to 20, then they’re entering kindergarten ahead of their peers and, statistically speaking, they have a good chance at going to college and being prepared for STEM fields. 

The Three-Step Method to Teaching Math
Sep 23

The Three-Step Method to Teaching Math

By Elephant Learning | Teaching Math

If you want to help your child learn new math concepts, then effective teaching and communication methods are your best tools. The first step is understanding your child’s level (learn how to do that here). If you are not working with your student at their level, then it will be difficult for them to understand you and that can actually inhibit your student from learning.

The following three-step process to teach math effectively is what we use at Elephant Learning and it is something you can use in your own work with your child. It includes defining an idea, determining if a child recognizes a definition and then allowing a child to produce the idea in order to demonstrate their comprehension. 

For example:

  • You show your child three objects and say, “This is three.” This is defining.
  • You hold up three objects and ask your child, “How many do I have?” If they respond with “three,” you know they are recognizing.
  • You ask your child to give you three objects and they do so correctly. Now, they are comprehending

This last step is the proverbial checkmark. If your child can do this, then they truly understand the math concept.

This three-step process can be used with all math concepts that you would want to teach your child, including counting, subtraction, multiplication and fractions. 

1/ Define the Idea

Defining a math concept for your child is where the primary “instruction” is going to occur. You’re going to show them an idea, have them exhibit the idea and then label it with the name of the concept. Let’s go back to a previous analogy we’ve given on how to teach a child their colors.

Related: The Real Reason Math Curriculum is Failing Your Child

You can’t just verbally tell a child what the color red “is” and expect them to understand it. What you do is you show a child red objects and then label them as red, so they can then recognize the color at a later time. Similarly, you have to show a child a math concept and then label it, therefore defining the idea, before they can truly comprehend the concept. You can’t describe to a child what addition is if you’re not doing it. 

Defining a math concept with a child isn’t as complex as it sounds. Ask the child to give you five things and then four more things. Now how many do you have? Nine. That’s addition. After the child counts to get the answer let them know, “That is right! Four added to five is nine.”  

2/ Recognize the Definition

Can your child accurately give you four building blocks, then five more building blocks and then tell you how many they have total? Then they recognize addition. At first, your child is likely going to count all nine building blocks in order to give you an answer, and that’s okay. 

But at some point, you want them to move to a more advanced counting strategy. They should be able to “count on,” or start at five and then count on to nine, without having to count all of the building blocks over again. The Elephant Learning app accomplishes this by hiding the first amount of items from the app user, so they’re forced to start at their original number (five) and add on the four items that they can see to get to the correct answer of nine. 

3/ Demonstrate Comprehension 

Once your child is confidently and correctly using the concept to solve problems, they are demonstrating comprehension. For counting, this would be if they are able to produce, for example, seven objects and stop at seven.  For addition and subtraction, that is identifying that addition or subtraction would answer a word problem, or a real life problem. For multiplication, that is using it as a tool to solving questions with grouping or arrays.

Related: How to Evaluate Your Child’s Math Skills Based on Language

How to Deal With Pitfalls and Problems

If you’re working with your child and he or she is not demonstrating that they’re able to recognize the definition, it’s just a matter of going back to the definition and explaining it again. This is where you don’t want to get frustrated. You want to remain calm and patient, but don’t repeat yourself too much. If you and your child are both frustrated because they’re not getting the answers right, it can only lead to math anxiety and later avoidance of math on their part down the road.

Maybe it’s not a matter of your child not understanding, but it’s that you’re not teaching the definition properly, at which point it might be time to consult Elephant Learning or another online resource to see how best to teach these definitions. 

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Teaching Math Effectively

Teaching math effectively is so much more involved than giving your child a math sheet filled with problems or asking them to memorize some multiplication tables. It requires passing on the experience of math concepts and ensuring a child truly comprehends a math concept before going on to the next one. However, with a little bit of work and a lot of patience, parents can teach their children math in a way that sets them up for future success. 


Case Study: T.O.U.C.H. Tulsa
Sep 18

Case Study: T.O.U.C.H. Tulsa

By Elephant Learning | Case Study

A nonprofit in Tulsa that works with low-income and refugee children experienced amazing results using the Elephant Learning app. On average, all the students in the program learned an average of 1.25 years of math by using the app for 23 minutes per week during the beta testing period. 

We talked to Laura, one of the nonprofit administrators, to learn more about her experience with Elephant Learning and her students’ response to the app. 

Taking Math Out of the Classroom

T.O.U.C.H. Tulsa was originally formed to help a low-income, oft-forgotten community in Tulsa through after-school programming funded by the 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant. The after-school program, called The Zone Academy and now in its 12th year, is an enrichment program. That means T.O.U.C.H. Tulsa partners with schools to provide children with auxiliary learning experiences that complement what they’re already learning in the classroom. The Zone is STEAM-based, so it provides learning experiences focused on science, technology, engineering, art and math. During an average afternoon in the program, a child enjoys some recreation time and snacks, alongside homework time and tutoring. 

Before working with the Elephant Learning app, children at The Zone would have math sessions, though those sessions weren’t referred to as a traditional “math class.” According to Laura, she and her team didn’t want to mirror children’s experiences in school, where they just sat down and did some math problems.

Related: The Real Reason Math Curriculum is Failing Your Child

Instead, The Zone incorporates math, science, engineering and other STEAM concepts into hands-on activities. 

The Needs: Effective, User-Friendly, Customizable

Last year, Laura says, her supervisor and the program director came across Elephant Learning while searching through different math apps that could be used as part of Zone curriculum. She and her colleagues wanted a math app that was:

  • Effective: The students would increase their math skills.
  • User-friendly: An app that the students could use on their own, via an iPad or computer. With a large number of students, the app needed to be easy to use.
  • Customizable: The app needed to be easy to use, but robust enough that the exercises could be individualized to each student. 

Out of all the math learning apps and resources they came across, Elephant Learning was the most user-friendly and convenient, allowing the kids to just tap and go. 

Elephant Learning Makes the Grade

Currently, students are using the Elephant Learning app on their individual iPads. App usage is incorporated into the program’s homework time, so, after a student finishes their homework during that allotted time period, they can go play on the Elephant Learning app. It’s simple and easy for them to use; all they have to do is look for their name and start playing. 

Last year, 60 students were using the program, first through third grade. This semester, 100 students are using the program, from pre-K to sixth grade. 

Engagement Equals Enhanced Comprehension 

According to Laura, last year all the kids who used the Elephant Learning app “really loved it.” In fact, she said, they couldn’t get some kids to stop! They would have played the app 20, 30 or 40 minutes if allowed. All in all, the kids were engaged and they were having fun. 

As for Laura and her team, they were very impressed with the variety of activities the app offered to children, so there was always a game that matched each individual child’s interests and abilities. They also appreciated that they could go into the app and see how much time children were spending on activities, how much they accomplished each day and where they were at any given moment with their math comprehension. 

Many of the Zone students advanced significantly using the Elephant Learning app and ended up two or three years ahead of their starting math comprehension level. 

Related: Valuable Skills Your Child Learns in Math That They Can’t Learn Anywhere Else

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The Final Word

If any parent or teacher were interested in using Elephant Learning with their child, Laura says she would tell them to definitely check it out. “It’s a great way for them to practice their skills and learn new ones, and it’s pretty easy to use.” 

How to Evaluate Your Child’s Math Skills Based on Language
Aug 27

How to Evaluate Your Child’s Math Skills Based on Language

By Elephant Learning | Teaching Math

In order to increase your child’s math skills, you have to identify the starting point of your child’s comprehension. There are strategic ways to do this to ensure you’re not confusing your child even more. 

Rather than evaluate your child’s math skills by giving them a problem like “What is 5+4?” or “What is 7×9?”, where they could have memorized the answer, try to evaluate your child’s math skills based on language. If your student does not understand what is happening with the symbols behind what is on a piece of paper, they are not going to be able to apply the math to solve real life problems. Because success and ease at teaching comes from comprehension rather than proficiency, this will also ensure that your student is able to understand what you are saying when you are introducing new ideas.

Ask your child some word questions to determine if they understand what you mean when talking about math. Here are some examples of how you can test understanding math concepts.


To test counting, there are several things you can do. If you want to see if your student has comprehension, you may try a producing exercise with them. 

Ask them to give you eight things. If the student is able to pass over eight items, stopping at eight without help, then they are proficient at counting. If they continue, it is okay; let them continue to see how high they may get, but you may then see if they are proficient at “How many?” This is what many parents play with their children already. You hold out eight fingers and you ask the child “How many fingers am I holding up?” If they are able to count and get the answer, that is good. If they say something like “Five and three,” then you will need to continue easing the problems until you can find which numbers they understand and which they do not.

If they are showing that they can produce, you may move ahead a step further. Ask them if you had one more, how many would you have. Remember, it is okay if they count to get the answer or use their fingers; they will develop proficiency at mental math in time. Until then, let them use the strategies they understand to solve the problems. The slowness of the solution should cause them to come up with better strategies.

Subtraction and Addition

When it comes to subtraction and addition, some questions you could ask would be something like, “If I had eight peaches, and someone came and took four away, how many would I have left?” You can do this with or without fingers.

Because addition and subtraction are two sides of the same idea, you can alternate between addition and subtraction such as asking, “If I had 14 ships and someone brought me two more, how many would have?” 

Remember — it’s okay for your child to count to get the answer or to use their fingers. It means that they understand how to solve the problem and because of that they understand the language. That’s good. 

If they are not proficient, that is okay, too. Go to easier subjects and find out what they understand and do not. Catching them up will be fast and easy if you know you are starting in the right place.


When it comes to evaluating multiplication, and knowing whether or not your child understands the language and concept versus having just memorized their multiplication tables, we use groupings by rows or collections. 

You may arrange six rows of seven items and ask “How many are there?” If your child is counting to get the answer and they’ve memorized their times tables, then this may be an indication of a problem. You may quickly be able to catch them up if you say something like “What is 6 times 7?” after they count to answer. 

A lot of times, when students who have memorized their multiplication tables make this real-life connection of what multiplication actually means, they’re able to get the concept. They glide through multiplication moving forward. 

Fractions, Decimals and Percentages

These three math topics are all representations of proportionality. Students that are having issues understanding the idea of proportionality will have issues with all three.  

They are best evaluated visually. The easiest way to understand proportionality is through fractions and the best way to do this in real life is through measurements — anything that breaks out a measuring cup, ruler, or measuring tape. By working with your student on a project like this, you will quickly see what they understand and do not. Where they do not understand, take note and back off; where they do understand, you may give them more challenging questions.

When it comes to fractions, it’s important for children to understand that fractions, decimals and percentages are all representations of the same idea: proportionality. It’s just a quirk of human language that we’ve agreed upon these three different ways to represent the same idea. No one way is more correct than another. Telling a student this is important. It is often overlooked in the classroom and ends up contributing to anxiety around these topics.

What to Do When Your Child Doesn’t Understand

What can you do if you’re working with a student, but you’re seeing that they don’t understand something? It’s pretty simple, actually.

Let them answer the question incorrectly. Ask them why they think it is the correct answer. Based on their reasoning, you should be able to see exactly what the child does not understand and then give them a hint that allows them to have that “aha” moment or clarify the idea that is misunderstood.  

Related: Answers to Your Top Questions About Math Anxiety 

This is the process we encourage our parents to use when working with their child in the Elephant Learning app. Every parent we have spoken to that has used the above advice has been able to coach their child into understanding. For example, one parent discovered that her daughter thought “older” meant “taller” and that was causing the issue!

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It’s very important not to get frustrated if your child does not understand a concept. This is where Elephant Learning really excels. We help you find your student’s level without the exhaustion. The computer has infinite patience.

Please don’t keep pounding away at the same concepts in the same manner if your child isn’t getting it. Sometimes it is best to take a break. Go online and see how other people are teaching these concepts; you can even look at how the Elephant Learning app is teaching a concept and replicate our methods. 

Building a Solid Math Foundation 

Evaluating your child’s math skills is so much more than just giving them a math sheet filled with problems, or looking at how well they’re doing in class. It’s all about ensuring they have a strong math foundation that holds up over time as they move into harder and harder concepts. Evaluating their comprehension based on the language surrounding math makes building this foundation that much easier. 

5 Common Math App Pitfalls — and How Elephant Learning Is Different
Aug 19

5 Common Math App Pitfalls — and How Elephant Learning Is Different

By Elephant Learning | Curriculum , Math Apps

As a parent with a child struggling in math or striving to get ahead, you have an overwhelming choice to make. Between thousands of online resources and hundreds of math apps, you may wonder what makes one resource different from another aside from the price point and the graphics.

If you’ve already tried a number of apps, you’ve probably noticed that a typical math app’s strategy is to throw math components into an online game, but this never gets to the root of the problem: If a child has math anxiety or is averse to doing mathematics, the game is not fooling them. If anything, it may be turning mathematics into work.

When we see statistics like 75% of high school students are not proficient in high school mathematics (and that is up from 66% in 2007!), it’s clear that while the number of applications on the market for mathematics has exploded, none of them are moving the needle. 

At Elephant Learning, we believe it is possible to make educational software that emphasizes education first and is also fun. It is an important difference. Our only goal is to ensure that children are empowered by mathematics

From our founding mission to the curriculum behind the games, here are five ways Elephant Learning is different from many popular math apps. 

1. We Are a Gamification of a Proven Curriculum

Elephant Learning started with the most effective mathematics activities as documented by early-age education researchers — scientists that have dedicated their lives to finding the most effective way to teach. We used these activities to create puzzle games for children.

Because we are starting with an activity that we know works, rather than figuring out how to mishmash math into a game that will be “entertaining,” we know that the outcome is going to be effective. This places the emphasis on learning. The rest of the tool is built around this.

2. Our Choices Are Research Oriented

Science says that if a child does activity A in order to do activity B, then activity A becomes work. 

In the case of having children do math in order to play games, this means that mathematics is becoming “work” to the child. That does not feel like empowerment. With every decision we make, we are painstakingly ensuring that the message we are sending to the student is the most empowering.  

That is also why we are creating coaching videos to help you use our tool every step of the way. The way we overcome math anxiety is by ensuring that children understand the concepts, and that we develop a healthy relationship with mathematics going forward. 

In fact, the research says doing mathematics at your level of understanding is fun, like a puzzle game, and it develops the problem-solving skills that children need everywhere in life.

3. We Treat It Like a Med

If you’ve ever read the “Four Hour Body” by Tim Ferriss, he talks about a med (medicine). With medicine, you want to take the required dosage; anything greater than the required dosage creates declining results. Ferriss’ example was tanning. If you tan for 15 minutes, it’s the optimal amount of time in the sun. Any more than 15 minutes and you run the risk of burning; any less and the results are not as optimal.

Every choice we make treats our system like a med. That is why we have daily playtime timers to limit usage so that students do not burn out. But more than that, that is also why we do go overboard on motivational techniques. 

People have studied the most addictive apps on the market and have books with formulas designed to make apps consume your time. That is not Elephant Learning’s goal — empowerment does not come through addiction. Our goal is to get children to use it 10 minutes per day, three days per week. If a student wants to do more, let them, but it is important to keep it within reason so that the student does not burn out on it. The child takes the “med”, they get the result and they apply it in their lives. 

Related Article: The Real Reason Math Curriculum is Failing Your Child

4. Progress Based on Reality 

For most students (everyone older than five), the Elephant Learning app experience starts with a placement exam or training phase. They train with the app’s algorithms, which determines their initial math comprehension. 

This is vital because you won’t be starting your child out at where they should be according to their grade or age. Instead, we’re starting with the curriculum that your child is actually ready to tackle, based on their comprehension. 

This ensures children feel empowered (because they’re not automatically greeted with math problems they’re bound to fail, as soon as they start using the app), they have fun doing math problems they’re capable of doing and the math doesn’t become annoying “work.” 

Meanwhile, other apps assume your child may know, for example, multiplication tables because they’re in third grade. Elephant Learning actually takes the time to find out where your child really is in their math comprehension and where their math gap actually started. The resulting experience for the child is a huge, empowering difference.

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5. Power to the Parents

Many math apps are parent-free zones or, at best, parents are an afterthought within the app. 

Elephant Learning knows that the best results come when the parent is involved in the child’s education. Every study shows outcomes for students are better when parents are involved. The truth is, when I started this company, my first child was on his way. I created this system as a tool to ensure that he receives the benefits of mathematics education and avoids the American educational pitfall. 

We live in a time when, increasingly, if you are not the person creating the automation, you are the person being replaced by it. Our reports detail exactly how we intend to teach each topic down to the milestone level with advice on how you can further learning with fun games outside of the system. This turns your child’s playtime in the system into a tool to succeed in playtime with you. We provide advice on how to work with the students on mistakes so that the pressure is always off. At any point in time, if your student is struggling, we are always happy to look at the data and advise. That is why Elephant Learning can guarantee results.

The math app you choose for your child’s learning matters. Apps that focus on games and graphics with math sprinkled throughout may end up turning those math problems into perceived work for your child (and can become addictive). Elephant Learning begins with a proven curriculum and scientific understanding of how children learn math. We then build games and puzzles around the curriculum, empowering students to truly grasp math concepts. Knowing that parental involvement is key to student success, we also ensure that you, the parent, are involved every step of the way.