5 ways executive function challenges can impact math

By Kate Kelly

5 Ways Executive Functioning Issues Can Impact Math, kid using a calculator

At a glance

  • Kids with executive function challenges may struggle with math.

  • They can find it hard to shift from one type of problem to another.

  • Trouble with working memory can make it hard to solve multi-step problems.

Executive function skills play a big role in math success. They allow kids to apply the math knowledge they already have, plus build on it to acquire new math skills. So when kids have executive function challenges, they may run into trouble with math — even if they understand it. Here are some common difficulties.

1. Rushing through math homework

Some kids with executive function challenges can be impulsive or impatient. They may rush through homework, which can lead to errors. With math problems, kids need to have a good understanding of the directions. But kids with executive function challenges may not take the time to really look at the assignment or think about what they’re supposed to do. Instead, they tend to just dive right in.

For example, they might assume that the math homework involves addition because it did yesterday. In their rush to get started, they don’t notice that in today’s assignment, all of the problems have a minus sign, not a plus sign. So they end up getting all of the answers wrong.

2. Having trouble applying new math rules

Learning new things involves shifting gears as the activity changes. That takes flexible thinking skills. It also requires that kids stop and reflect before they respond. But kids who struggle with executive function may fixate on what they already know. They might have trouble stepping back and seeing that they may need a new strategy to complete a problem.

Let’s say they’re learning fractions. Kids who have trouble with flexible thinking might insist that ¼ is bigger than ½. They know the rule that 4 is bigger than 2. But a bigger number as the denominator means that the fraction is smaller. They have to keep this in mind and use a new rule for deciding which is larger.

3. Giving automatic answers to math problems

Some kids with executive function challenges respond to problems based on habit. Instead of looking at each situation as different, they give an automatic response. When it comes to math, they may get stuck on approaching equations in a certain way. And that can lead them to ignore crucial pieces of information.

Let’s say they’ve been practicing addition. They answer 3 + 3 with the number 6. Then they see 3 − 3 and write down 6 for that one, too. It’s not that they don’t know how to do subtraction. But when they see 3 and 3, they have trouble overriding their tendency to answer based on the first thing that comes to mind.

4. Getting lost in the middle of complex math problems

Kids rely on working memory to keep up with complex math problems. They have to hold on to information — like a formula, an answer from a previous step, or the steps of the problem itself — so they can use it later to complete the problem. But kids with poor working memory skills can get lost in the problem.

Here’s an example. When doing long division, kids who have trouble with executive function can forget that they need to bring down the remainder after subtracting. They can’t remember what to do next and give up, or they come up with a wrong answer.

Also, kids might have to show their work on complex math problems. Often they’ll use scratch paper to show the steps they’ve taken to arrive at the answer.

But kids with executive function challenges can struggle with organization. They may scribble information across the paper in a disorganized way. And that can make it hard to move from one step to another with the correct information.

5. Not catching mistakes

Kids have to use self-monitoring to keep track of how they’re doing as they go. Some kids with executive function issues have trouble stepping back and reflecting on their work. They may not realize their answer doesn’t make sense and that they should go back to see where they went wrong, or get help.

Some kids with executive function challenges might finish their math test early. But they don’t go back and check their work, even though they have time. They’re so confident that they did everything right that they see no need for a second look.

How to help

If executive function challenges are getting in the way of a child’s ability to do math, there are strategies that can help.

Start by having the child look over the assignment. Then, have the child underline the directions and highlight key pieces of information. Those include things like directions or even plus and minus signs.

Find out if the child knows how to do the problems or needs help. Encourage asking questions like, “Is this the same as the last problem, or is it different?”

Next, help the child create a personalized checklist of things to look out for before deciding that the work is done.

Finally, teach how to check the work, either with a calculator or by reversing the operation to see if the answer is the same.

For families: Get more ideas on how to help your child with tricky math homework. If you suspect your child has trouble with executive function, but aren’t sure, you may want to consider an evaluation.

For teachers: Learn about classroom accommodations for executive function challenges.

Key takeaways

  • Kids with executive function challenges tend to dive into assignments too quickly.

  • Trouble with working memory, flexible thinking and impulse control can make it hard to learn new math rules.

  • Kids who struggle with executive skills may have trouble monitoring their math work and catching mistakes they make.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Kate Kelly has been writing and editing for more than 20 years, with a focus on parenting.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Philip D. Zelazo, PhD is the Nancy M. and John E. Lindahl Professor at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota.