At a glance
Some school districts have math specialists who work with kids as part of intervention programs in general education.
Math instruction isn’t provided by general education specialists as commonly as reading instruction is.
Special education teachers in grade school might not have as much specialized training in math instruction.
Grade school teachers often have less training in how to help kids with math challenges than reading challenges. Math instruction as an area of specialization has been getting more attention in recent years. In some ways, math instruction delivered by a specialist looks a lot like reading instruction delivered by a specialist. But it’s less common.
Many parents and teachers have heard of programs that use an Orton–Gillingham approach to help struggling readers. This approach has been shown to be effective by many research studies over time. But there isn’t an Orton–Gillingham for math.
No approach to math instruction for kids with learning and thinking differences has been studied as extensively as those for reading instruction. So what can be done to help kids who are struggling? Here are answers to some common questions about math instruction from specialists — and ways to help your child.
Are there math specialists who come into grade school classrooms the way reading specialists do?
It really depends on the school district. Some districts have math specialists who are similar to reading specialists in that they push into general education classrooms to work with students. Other districts have math specialists who are called math coaches. In this role, they help teachers improve their instruction to meet the needs of all students.
Some districts may not have a math specialist or coach. They might not be able to afford one. These districts usually have to rely on teachers to use different methods to help students with and other kinds of math challenges. But to get this help kids have to qualify for special education.
How much math training do special education teachers typically get?
Requirements vary from state to state. They’re also different for different grade levels. To teach math in middle school and high school, teachers tend to need a certain number of college credits in math or they need to pass the state certification test.
Special education teachers in grade school might not have as much specialized training in math instruction. But they can deepen their knowledge by attending math workshops. If your child’s teachers mention that their knowledge of math instruction is not where they’d like it to be, you may want to ask the school about the professional development it offers and push for more math training.
Are there certification programs for math instructors who want to specialize in teaching kids who struggle with math?
Yes, several colleges offer certification programs for math specialists and coaches. Many of these programs are geared for grade school. These programs go by different names. Some are called elementary mathematics specialists and teacher leaders (EMS&TL) programs. Others are called elementary math instructional leader (EMIL) programs.
Is there a specific math curriculum or program that research has shown helps kids who struggle with math?
Yes, there’s more than one. They all tend to be highly structured and sequential and involve a multisensory approach. Some are very hands-on. Some are done entirely on a computer. Here are a few examples of programs that research shows helps kids who are struggling with math:
- Do the Math focuses on a wide range of math skills and is aligned to the RTI approach.
- DreamBox Learning is a digital program that offers a more personalized approach to help kids work on concepts such as number sense and place value.
- Fraction Face-Off! focuses on understanding the part-to-whole relationship and the measurement of fractions.
- Hot Math helps third-graders who are struggling with word problems.
- Stern Math is a comprehensive program that involves colorful wooden blocks that fit into boxes and grooves.
- TouchMath is a comprehensive program that can be aligned to Common Core Standards.
How can I tell if my child is getting the right kind of instruction in math?
Talk to your child’s teachers and ask lots of questions about the school’s math instruction. If your child is receiving an instructional intervention in math, ask about how the school is monitoring your child’s progress. If your child isn’t making the progress you would expect or is frustrated regularly, ask what can be done differently to address these needs.
Finding a different approach might be needed. If your child has not been evaluated for special education, you might want to request an evaluation. If your child already has an IEP, you may want to request a team meeting and talk about whether the annual goals or services need to be adjusted.
Studies show that some instructional interventions help kids who are struggling with math.
There are certification programs for math specialists.
Asking questions about curriculum and training for teachers can help your child get the specialized math instruction needed to make progress.
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About the author
About the author
Brendan R. Hodnett, MAT is a special education teacher in Middletown, New Jersey, and an adjunct professor at Hunter College.
Bob Cunningham, EdM serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.