Does your child need a calculator for school this year? If so, what kind? Some of our recommendations may surprise you.

Trying to choose a calculator with the right features can feel intimidating. You don’t want to pay for features that would only confuse your child. You also want to avoid introducing technology that would inhibit your child’s long-term math success.

**Do Elementary School Children Need a Calculator?**

The early grades concentrate on arithmetic. In order to develop number sense, mathematical reasoning, and numerical fluency, children should be able to do arithmetic both in their head and on paper. Elementary school children need to practice these mental math skills, and using a calculator robs them of that important repetitive practice. For that reason, Mathnasium recommends that parents *not* buy a calculator for their elementary school children.

The only calculator elementary students need is the one between their ears. If a child gets frustrated doing math without a calculator, this is a sign to have their fundamental math skills assessed.

**Do Students Need a Calculator in Secondary School? If So, What Kind?**

There’s a lot of controversy about students using technology to learn math. Colleges see that students benefit from not using a calculator: More than fifty percent of research universities, including MIT and Harvard, do not allow calculus students to use any technology on exams.

Math professors who oppose the use of calculators in class acknowledge that students will use technology for math in the “real world;” however, they have noticed that a strong foundation in computational skills improves a student’s mathematical thinking in higher-level math concepts.

**Middle and High School Students Shouldn’t Use Calculators for Arithmetic**

Although many secondary students have progressed to algebra or beyond, doing mental math is still a skill they need to keep sharp. Of all skills learned in school, the ability to calculate numbers in one’s head is one of the most useful in later life. While it’s easy to start relying on calculators when the math homework gets complex, this weakens mental math skills and make understanding advanced math more difficult.

In the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics, Professors W. Stephen Wilson and Daniel Q. Naiman wrote, *“We find that students in the big mathematics service courses at the Johns Hopkins University who were encouraged to use calculators in K-12 have somewhat lower grades than those who weren’t.”*

**When Do Students Need Scientific and Graphing Calculators?**

A scientific calculator is an important tool in algebra and statistics. A graphing calculator adds a high-resolution screen to plot coordinates and graph functions.

High school math teachers often encourage graphing calculators because they are used for AP Calculus exams, the ACT, and a portion of the SAT (there is math portion of the SAT where calculators are *not* allowed). Math teachers will tell students which calculator is needed. Some physics teachers may also require a graphing calculator, but many are suggesting that students use a programming language instead.

There are even some great online graphing calculator options. The major downside for using the software-based calculators is that they cannot be used during many exams, including the SAT, ACT, and AP Calculus exams. It’s a good idea to ask your child’s teacher if an online graphing calculator is appropriate.

Because scientific and graphing calculators still have all the basic operations available, we caution students not to use them for *arithmetic*. Be aware that you don’t have to buy a calculator in order for a child to access one. Calculators, like the ones found online and included on phones, computers and tablets, are quite tempting for your child.

Whether using a computer or a stand-alone calculator, it’s a good idea to see exactly *how* your child is using the calculator. If they are using a calculator when they should be doing the math in their head, that might indicate a problem with their basic math skills.

**Is Your Child Calculator Dependent?**

Dependence on a calculator may indicate a learning gap. If your child already uses a calculator for basic math operations, an assessment of numerical fluency may be in order. Perhaps your child started using a calculator to do homework faster. This habit may have undermined your child’s math efforts. It often surprises parents who bring their child into our centers for an assessment that, even though their child can do some advanced math, certain basic skills are still missing.

Children who have gotten used to using a calculator may not give them up without protesting. Remind them that the purpose of a math class is not just to prove an ability to answer isolated problems. A math class should teach how to think and analyze complex problems mathematically.

Ultimately, when choosing a calculator you should follow the guidelines of your child’s teacher. Just be aware of the risks and drawbacks of overuse and reliance.