Math issues

At a Glance: 7 Ways Kids With Learning and Attention Issues Can Get Tripped Up by a Math Problem

By Bob Cunningham

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Children with learning and attention issues may struggle with math for a variety of reasons. For example, kids with dyscalculia may not have a strong number sense. Trouble with working memory, visual processing and other issues can also play a role. Use this guide to learn how different aspects of a math problem might be challenging to your child.

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At a Glance: 7 Ways Kids With Learning and Attention Issues Can Get Tripped Up by a Math Problem

Just because a math problem is short doesn’t mean it’s simple. Here are some of the ways children with learning and attention issues might get tripped up by a math problem—and how you can help.

1. Using “number sense”

Some kids have difficulty with number sense. They need help understanding the relationship between single items and groups of items. For example, “9” means one group of nine items. If your child has weak number sense, he might not understand what it means to take nine items away from a group of fifteen items. It could also mean he doesn’t understand that fifteen is more than nine.

How to help: Use blocks, buttons or other manipulatives your child can move around to see the single items being added to groups and taken away.

15 - 9 = 6

2. Using the sign

Your child may not understand or remember what each operation sign is telling him to do. Or he may misread the sign.

How to help: Ask your child to circle the sign in each problem. Then ask him to say the name of the symbol out loud along with the operation it indicates. For example, “Plus means add.”

3. Recognizing the numerals

he numerals “6” and “9” have the same shape—they’re just oriented differently. Your child might think they’re the same numeral, have trouble remembering the value of each one or get confused and think that “6” means nine and “9” means six.

How to help: Ask your child to trace each numeral with his finger and say the name aloud. Try doing this tracing activity using a tray filled with shaving cream or sand.

4. Working with double digits

Your child may struggle with numbers that have more than one digit. Place value can be tricky for many kids. Your child needs to understand that the 1 in “15” represents 10. If he isn’t solid on the concept of a double-digit number having a tens value and ones value, he might get stumped because he can’t subtract 9 from 5 or 1. Or he might reverse the process and subtract 5 and 1 from 9.

How to help: Have your child draw a line between the 1 and the 5 and read “15” as “one ten and five ones.” If it’s still tricky, have him write a 0 next to the 9 and read it as “zero tens and nine ones.”

5. Reading the problem

Textbooks and worksheets often present problems vertically. But teachers often use the horizontal format (15 − 9 = 6) in class because it works better with a number line and other instructional strategies. Some kids may have trouble changing the orientation of the problem in their mind in order to solve it the way they have practiced in class.

How to help: Get your child to write the problem horizontally or do this step for him.

6. Copying the problem

If your child is using a textbook, he will probably need to copy the problem onto his paper. He might copy the sign or any of the numerals incorrectly. For example, he might transpose or write the numerals down in the wrong order, such as writing 51 instead of 15. He might not notice the mistake before he tries to solve the problem.

How to help: Show your child how to hold the problem he wrote on his paper right next to the problem in the textbook to compare each number and sign.

7. Sticking with a strategy

There are many ways to approach subtraction. For example, your child might have been taught to use a number line, to split each number into its tens value and ones value, or to borrow and carry. He might not remember or fully understand any of these strategies. He could be confused by the sequence of steps he should follow. Or he might try to use parts of more than one strategy at the same time.

How to help: Ask the teacher which strategy is being used in class so you can help your child use it at home. If you’re not familiar with the strategy, ask the teacher to explain it. Show your child how to use the strategy and help him repeat it. Modeling and repeating the strategy can help your child commit it to memory.
Graphic of At a Glance: 7 Ways Kids With Learning and Attention Issues Can Get Tripped Up by a Math Problem
Graphic of At a Glance: 7 Ways Kids With Learning and Attention Issues Can Get Tripped Up by a Math Problem

About the Author

Portrait of Bob Cunningham

Bob Cunningham serves as advisor-in-residence on learning and attention issues for Understood.

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