Now that the school year has finally come to an end, my tutoring families wonder what they should do about summer study. They ask me, “What workbooks should I buy for the kids this summer?” Or, “Did you see the summer bridge workbooks at Costco? Are they any good?”

It’s normal to worry that your child will forget everything he learned in school over the summer, and that may be the case to some extent. That’s why his teacher will spend the first few weeks of the new school year reviewing material from the previous school year. Granted, it seems like a huge waste of time, but you might as well accept it. It’s been that way since forever.

Most teachers will tell you that the best thing you can do for your kids over the summer is help them perfect their multiplication and division facts. It’s so simple, yet so incredibly vital. When kids don’t know their facts, they have an especially difficult time working fractions, long division, etc. Often, when students are “slow” or “behind” in math, they’re really just getting stuck on their basic math facts. Like a line of dominos, the student thinks he’s no good at math, so he stops trying. Then he stops paying attention in class, and he gets a bad grade. The teacher emails the parent (usually Mom) to tell her that there’s a problem. Mom freaks out, and the student becomes even more frustrated and the cycle repeats itself. I see it all the time; brilliant kids who are capable of higher-level math, who can’t solve 8 x 7. Fortunately, it’s a relatively easy fix that any family can tackle over the summer.

So, instead of buying a general workbook that covers all subjects for a certain grade, try purchasing a specialized book that addresses just multiplication and division. You may find that the grade level printed on the book is below your child’s current grade level, but it doesn’t matter. Facts are facts. Your child’s teacher will be very grateful that you took this step. Reassure your older kids that working in a 3rd grade multiplication book doesn’t mean that he’s at a third grade math level.

You may be wondering why all of those general, multi-subject workbooks are in the marketplace to begin with. Well, I think it all comes down to fear. Parents today are so worried about their kids’ academic careers (this explains the freaking out) that they will buy just about anything to ease that anxiety. If it’s colorful, fun, and educational-ish..it sells. Most stores carry educational workbooks of some sort, and it’s become the norm for us to buy them like we buy bananas. Resist the allure! I urge you to purchase subject-specific workbooks! Your kids don’t need to do page after page of breaking apart compound words and “fixing” incomplete sentences. They’re boring, pointless, and your kids aren’t outside playing!

What cracks me up is that whenever I go to a yard sale or secondhand bookstore, I always find partially-completed, multi-subject workbooks with $.25 stickers on them. Yep – the kids filled out a few pages here and there, and then Mom got sick of fighting it and she let the kids off the hook. I know you’re nodding your head right now.

Here’s the plan: Identify the root issue that makes you feel that you should work with your child over the summer. For instance, if it’s long division, watch your child attempt a problem and see where he gets stuck. If he can’t seem to figure out how many times 9 goes into the 67 of 6794, then you can probably stop right there and work on division all summer. While you’re at it, be sure to address fact families: 9 x 7 = 63, and 63/9 = 7, and so on.

I grew up in the 80’s, and my mom never made me do worksheets during the summer – probably because they didn’t exist unless you robbed the elementary school and commandeered the Xerox machine. No…I got the hell out of the house so she wouldn’t make me clean it! She was pretty smart, huh? I rode my bike in the 110 degree Tucson heat without sunscreen, I built forts and I did back flips off the diving board. If we were lucky, Mom would drop me and my sister off at the Tucson Mall where we’d look at the inappropriate greeting cards in Spencer and drink Orange Julius’. Amazingly, we both graduated from college and went on to lead productive, successful lives. No summer bridge workbooks needed!

The takeaway: Make sure your kids know their facts quickly and accurately. A subject specific workbook is best for this. And remember, worksheets and workbooks don’t teach, they only reinforce.

For kids who are truly behind in a subject, or for kids with low math confidence, I suggest pre-teaching. More on that later!