Mental math is a common term, but what does it actually mean? Many people think of mental math as the ability to recall basic math facts, like 2 + 4 = 6 or 8 × 5 = 40. It’s more complex than that, however.
Mental math is a group of skills that allow people to do math “in their head.” Remembering math facts is one of these skills. Other skills include rounding numbers and estimating calculations.
Doing mental math requires strong memory skills. You have to be able to recall number concepts, retrieve math facts and remember the steps needed to solve a particular math problem.
For many kids, these skills come easily. But kids with certain learning and attention issues can sometimes struggle with them. Here’s how various learning issues can make it hard to do mental math.
How Dyscalculia Can Affect Mental Math
What it is: Dyscalculia is a learning issue that causes difficulty with making sense of numbers and math concepts.
The mental math connection: Dyscalculia can affect kids differently. Some may struggle to memorize math facts. They may also have trouble with:
- Recognizing numbers that are out of order
- Understanding the concept behind the math problem
- Estimating reasonable answers to calculations (understanding that 80 is a reasonable estimate for 53 + 33, but 150 is not.)
- Making comparisons between quantities (recognizing that 56 is larger than 44.)
Many kids will continue to use strategies like counting on fingers rather than move on to mental math strategies. For instance, other kids might understand that when you add 5 + 8, it’s more efficient to start with 8 and count 5 more rather than counting all the way up from 1.
Specific difficulties: Dyscalculia can make mental math very hard in everyday life as well as in school. For example, kids might mix up concepts like 60 minutes in an hour versus 100 cents in a dollar.
Strategies to try: You can help your child build on his basic understanding of math concepts while working on homework. Help him find arithmetic patterns that he can use for solving problems. For instance, when adding 9 to a number, the answer is always 1 less than if you added 10. Or, when multiplying by 5, the answer always ends in 5 or 0.
How ADHD Can Affect Mental Math
What it is: ADHD is a brain-based condition that makes it hard to pay attention and stay on task. Many kids with ADHD have issues with executive functions, including self-control and working memory.
The mental math connection: Trouble focusing and staying on task can make it hard for kids to connect what they’ve learned to old and new experiences. It also makes it hard to commit information to long-term memory. This can lead to gaps in basic skills. It can also make it hard to recall facts or follow the procedures of mental calculations.
Specific difficulties: Kids with ADHD often have trouble with working memory. And that can make it hard to memorize math facts. They may also struggle with organizing the steps they use to solve a problem. Kids with ADHD may rush through a problem and miss important details. For example, they might miss a negative sign or a change in operations.
Strategies to try: Find ways to reinforce math skills that are engaging to your child. Kids with ADHD can be very focused on things they’re really interested in. If your child loves video games, there are many games geared at building math skills. If he’s interested in cooking, use measuring as a way to practice mental math.
And try these tips for helping grade-schoolers, middle-schoolers and high-schoolers slow down on homework.
How Visual Processing Issues Can Affect Mental Math
What it is: Visual processing issues are brain-based issues that makes it hard to perceive or “make sense” of visual information. Visual processing issues are not the same as vision problems.
The mental math connection: Trouble with visual processing issues can impact how kids interpret numbers and symbols. They might transpose or misread them, for instance. Or kids might line up place values incorrectly. This can make it hard to round numbers and estimate answers.
Specific difficulties: So much of math is taught through the use of visual supports. These include things like number lines, graphs and fraction strips. These tools are helpful for many kids. But they can actually make math more difficult for kids with visual processing issues.
Kids with visual processing issues also might misread or confuse numbers and symbols in math equations. This can cause them to make common errors when doing mental math.
Strategies to try: Tap into different senses. Provide objects that allow your child to use his hands to work with numbers and number concepts. These could be beads, dry beans, blocks or any other small item. Tools like base ten blocks can also help. You might also involve movement and sound by having your child count along as you clap. Explore more multisensory techniques for teaching math.
How Math Anxiety Can Affect Mental Math
What is it: Math anxiety is an emotional issue, not a learning issue. But it can have a big impact on learning. Many kids believe they’re just not good at math, whether or not they have a learning issue. This can make kids feel anxious when they’re faced with math-related tasks, both in and out of school.
The mental math connection: Anxiety can cause a “mental block.” This can keep kids from retrieving math facts or procedures from long-term memory. They might draw a blank when they’re in a situation where mental math is required. Or they may avoid the task altogether because they’re afraid of failing.
Specific difficulties: Kids with math anxiety can often perform what they learned in class as they practice it with their teachers or at home. But they freeze up or worry about situations that have higher stakes, like taking a test or playing a game with friends that involves math. So the skills they can show in class just don’t transfer.
Strategies to try: Practicing math skills can help your child build confidence. It’s important to do it during non-stressful situations, however. If he has plans to go to the mall with friends, for instance, help him practice estimating prices. For example, ask how he’d estimate what 25 percent off a purchase would be.
Also, try having him write down his fears about math. This can be especially helpful if he’s worried about a test or going to math class.
Trouble with mental math isn’t necessarily a sign of a learning or attention issue. But if you’re concerned, discover next steps to take if you think your child might have dyscalculia, ADHD or visual processing issues. Learn how to tell the difference between signs of math anxiety and signs of dyscalculia. And read more about how learning and attention issues can cause trouble with math.