Second-grade math: Why it’s hard for kids

By Gretchen Vierstra, MA

Second-grade math is often hard for kids — even for kids who didn’t have any difficulty before. So how is second-grade math different from first-grade math? 

In first grade, kids can use their fingers for most of the math they do. Kids are adding or subtracting single-digit numbers, like 8 + 5. And they’re getting more comfortable with math symbols, like the +, –, and = signs.

When second grade comes around, there’s a big jump in conceptual math. Kids start working with place value. And they’re adding and subtracting two-digit numbers, like 18 + 25. 

Kids also have to start doing math in their heads — they can’t use their fingers. Sometimes, they can use physical objects, like blocks, to solve problems. But eventually kids have to do the problems in their heads or with symbols on paper.

Plus, getting the right answer isn’t enough in second grade. Kids need to explain why it’s the right answer and show their work — sometimes in specific ways. This can be a huge challenge for many kids.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Gretchen Vierstra, MA is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the 

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.