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5th Grade Algebra and Candy


If you’ve read the recent article My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me, then you know that parents all over our country are scratching their heads, wondering when homework got so dang hard. 

I think that part of the reason is that complex concepts (like algebra) are being introduced  in earlier grades.

In an ideal world, an early introduction to algebra would help prepare students to master advanced math in middle school and high school.  It’s scaffolding for the future.

In the meantime, parents look at their kids’ homework and go “Whoa.”

Here’s a trick that might make homework easier.  Add candy to the equation!

To show how this can work, I’m using an example similar to what you would find in the 5th grade Houghton Mifflin Math Expressions textbook, which the Edmonds School District uses.

Problem: Mrs. Garcia’s neighborhood has 28 pets.  There are twice as many cats as hamsters and four times as many dogs as hamsters.  How many of each pet are there?

You could use guess and check to figure this out, which would take forever.  Or you could use algebra.  Or you could use algebra and candy…even better!


One piece of candy corn equals the number of hamsters.  Two pieces of candy corn equals the number of cats, which is twice the number of hamsters.  Four pieces of candy corn equals the number of dogs, which is four times the number of hamsters.  In all, the total number of pets is 28.  That would mean 4 hamsters, 8 cats, and 16 dogs in the neighborhood.


Once you introduce candy into the equation, math homework becomes more fun.  Just don’t forget to have toothbrushes on the ready.

Token Economy Example

(Point Book Front and Back)

Recently I set up a token economy for my son Bruce (6) so that I could actively practice “catching him being good” this summer. My husband and I are big believers in Positive Discipline which involves reasonable, related, respectful consequences for negative behavior. As a behavioral intervention practice, token economies don’t usually relate to Positive Discipline. But heck, sometimes as parents you have to be flexible and try different approaches, right?

Two of the years I spent teaching I used point books such as these, only I had money stamps. At the end of each week I would open up a little store and “sell” random pieces of junk. It was very popular! Using money stamps also helped my students learn math skills such as adding, multiplying, counting change, and fractions. Since Bruce already knows these concepts, I decided to go with an algebra approach this time. Each stamp takes the place of a big number, so this is a defacto beginning algebra lesson as well as a positive behavior encouragement strategy.

Here’s what the inside of the book looks like as we go along:

Bruce is in charge of using his pre-algebra skills to figure out how many points he has. 20,000 points for a $20 trip to the bookstore is a bit overly generous, but I wanted to kick off this idea in a big way with Bruce. Also, I had been planning on taking him to the bookstore anyway, so the book money budget was already there. 🙂