10 terms to know if your child struggles with math

By Tara Drinks

As you look into your child’s struggles with math, you might hear some unfamiliar words and concepts. Here are key math terms that can help you take an active role in conversations about your child’s math skills.

1. Number sense

Number sense is a group of skills that form the basis for learning math. Some examples are understanding concepts like amounts and “more” and “less,” and being able to list numbers in the proper order.

2. Mental math

Mental math is the process of doing calculations in your head (like figuring out how much a tip should be). Mental math requires strong memory skills. You have to be able to remember number concepts to solve a particular math problem.

3. Operation

This term refers to a calculation, like addition and subtraction. Other examples include multiplication, division, and finding the square root of a number.

4. Multisensory instruction

This teaching approach uses more than one sense to help kids learn what numbers and symbols mean. Techniques can involve sight, touch, hearing, and movement. For example, kids might tap out numbers on their fingers or draw math problems. (See examples of multisensory math techniques.)

5. Manipulatives

These are objects that are used to teach kids math concepts like addition and subtraction. Examples range from beads to base ten blocks to cereal pieces. Manipulatives are often used in multisensory math instruction.

6. Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is a common learning difficulty in the area of math. Not every child who struggles with math has dyscalculia. If kids with dyscalculia get the right support, they can improve their skills.

7. Math anxiety

Sometimes kids are so anxious about math that it gets in the way of learning and building skills. But it can be a chicken-or-egg situation. Kids may be feeling anxious because they’re struggling and doing poorly in math.

8. Working memory

This is one of a group of skills known as executive function. When kids struggle with working memory, it can affect math in lots of ways. They may have trouble remembering math facts (like 2 + 4 = 6) or keeping numbers in mind when doing operations.

9. Intervention

This refers to a program or set of steps at school to help students improve in areas where they’re struggling. The school might refer to it as instructional intervention or academic intervention. There are “tiers,” or levels of intervention that you can ask the school about if you notice your child is having a hard time with math.

10. Evaluation

An evaluation is testing to look at strengths and challenges in learning skills, including math. The school will do an evaluation for free. Depending on the results, a student might get extra help and services at school.

If your child is struggling with math, you might wonder why, and how to help. Get the information you need to understand your child’s trouble with math.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Tara Drinks is an associate editor at Understood.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Brendan R. Hodnett, MAT is a special education teacher in Middletown, New Jersey, and an adjunct professor at Hunter College.