5 ways executive function challenges can impact math

Kids with executive function challenges may struggle with math. Learn why, and find out how to help.

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 five ways executive function challenges can affect math.

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 means that kids need to 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

Kids who have trouble with executive function may answer problems based on habit. They don’t see each situation as different. Instead, they give an automatic response.

When it comes to math, they may get stuck on doing equations in a certain way. And that can lead them to ignore key 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.

When kids have poor working memory skills, they 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. Executive function challenges can make it hard for kids to step back and reflect 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 might also finish their math tests 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 you can help

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

One way is to have kids look over their math assignments. Ask kids to highlight the directions and key pieces of information. Then create a checklist of things to look out for before the work is done.

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.


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