# Why kids have trouble understanding math symbols

By Julie Rawe

Expert reviewed by Daniel Ansari, PhD

## Carousel

- Quick tip 1Do math by moving around small objects.Do math by moving around small objects.
Move around small objects like beads or cotton balls so kids see how the quantities change as they add two sets together or take some away. This can help kids understand numbers and how math operations work.

Kids aren’t born knowing what math symbols mean. In preschool they learn to count out loud: “One, two, three, four.” As they get older, they learn to write numerals: 1, 2, 3, 4. But understanding that “4” represents a group of four things? That’s an abstract idea that can be hard to learn.

A math symbol stands for something — whether it’s a quantity, like four, or an arithmetic operation to carry out, like multiplication. But there’s nothing about the way math symbols look that helps explain what they mean or what you should do with them.

All kids need practice and time to learn how to use math symbols. Some kids need extra support to master these concepts.

Kids develop at different rates. This means they learn math skills at different rates, too. Keep reading to see what trouble understanding math symbols can look like — and when kids might need extra support.

## Dive deeper

### Signs that kids struggle with math symbols

### Trouble with number sense

### Trouble shifting from concrete to abstract

### Trouble with the equal sign

### How to help kids understand math symbols

## About the author

## About the author

Julie Rawe is the special projects editor at Understood.

## Reviewed by

## Reviewed by

Daniel Ansari, PhD is a professor in developmental cognitive neuroscience at Western University, Canada.