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Understanding why kids struggle with math

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

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If you see a child struggling with math, you might wonder why, and whether it’s something to be concerned about. Why is math so hard for some kids?

It’s not uncommon for kids to have trouble with math. Math difficulties can show up at different ages and in lots of ways. And it’s a myth that girls struggle more with math than boys do.

Some challenges are clearer, like trouble adding, subtracting, multiplying, or doing long division. Others are less noticeable and may not even seem directly related to math. For example, some kids have trouble telling time or left from right.

When kids struggle with math, it doesn’t mean they’re not smart or not trying hard enough. In fact, kids who have trouble with math are often trying their best.

Some kids just need more time and practice to learn math skills, or better instruction. Others need additional support to get there. The type of support kids need often depends on what’s causing the challenge.

Dive deeper

Examples of trouble with math

Kids who struggle with math may have trouble with very simple concepts, like “more” vs. “less” and “bigger” vs. “smaller.” They may not understand amounts or the order of things, such as “first,” “second,” or “third.”

The ability to understand basic concepts like these is known as number sense . When kids have poor number sense, it’s harder to learn math.

As kids move through school, more complex math can become a challenge. This includes concepts like time, distance, measurements, money, and math symbols. Find out what math skills kids typically have at different ages .

Math learning differences

Some kids struggle with math because of a learning difference called dyscalculia. Dyscalculia isn’t as well-known as other learning and thinking differences, like dyslexia. But experts believe it’s just as common.

There are lots of tools and strategies to help kids with dyscalculia thrive. Learn more about dyscalculia signs and how to help .

The connection between math and anxiety

When kids struggle with math, you may see certain behaviors. Kids may avoid doing math homework or get upset when they need to do it. They might cry before math tests and refuse to go to school. This may be related to their struggles.

On the other hand, sometimes even when kids understand math, they may still feel anxious about doing it. Some people call this math anxiety. Kids get so stressed out about math that it gets in the way of learning math. It can make it seem like they’re struggling with math, even if they aren’t.

Learn how to know if a child has math anxiety .

Next steps

No matter what’s causing a child’s trouble with math, there are ways to help. 

Take notes on what you’re seeing and look for patterns. It’s helpful for families, educators, and even health care providers to talk together about what’s happening. Parents and caregivers can use these conversation starters with teachers .

Looking for specific ways to help kids build math skills?

Parents and caregivers: Get more tips and strategies for helping kids with math .

Educators: Try evidence-based math strategies, like using manipulatives and number representations .

Related topics

Math Math Root causes Root causes

Did you know?

People with learning differences in math may give estimates that are wildly off. They may see a group of five apples and say, “It’s about 20.”

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Kids with ADHD are much more likely to have a learning disability than kids who don’t have ADHD. They’re also more likely to have anxiety or depression.

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