Math Challenges in Children: How to Help

Many people feel intimidated by math, worry about math performance, or avoid math

Mathematics is often thought of as a subject that a student either understands or doesn’t, with little in between. In reality, mathematics encompasses a wide variety of skills and concepts. Dyscalculia is a learning disability that impacts the normal acquisition of arithmetic. It occurs in about 14% of students (Barbaresi et al, 2005).

One thing is true: math is cumulative in nature. So if your child is struggling in one area, it is important to identify difficulties as early as possible, as other math classes will build on this content. We know that remediation can be effective, especially if it is done before students lose confidence or develop a fear of math.

Math can be a challenging area for many people
Math can be a challenging area for many people

Difficulties with Mathematics

What Can Stand in the Way of a Student’s Mathematical Development?

Math disabilities, or Dyscalculia, can arise at nearly any stage of a child’s scholastic development. Unfortunately, very little is known about causes of math delays or disabilities. But, educational experts look for deficits in one or more of the following skills. These deficits can exist independently of one another or can occur in combination.

Incomplete Mastery of Number Facts

Number facts are the basic computations (9 + 3 = 12 or 2 x 4 = 8) students are required to memorize in the earliest grades of elementary school. Knowing these calculations is important because it allows a student to approach more advanced mathematical thinking without being bogged down by simple calculations.

Different strategies can help different people
Different strategies can help different people

Math Computational Weakness

Many students are inconsistent with calculations. They make errors because they misread signs or carry numbers incorrectly, or may not write numerals clearly enough or in the correct column.

Difficulties Connecting Abstract Math Concepts

Some people tend to be more literal, and struggle with abstract reasoning, and how it can help in real-life situations. This makes math concepts harder to recall and apply in new situations. They may have difficulties understanding that numbers represent real-world events, and need consistent help making these inferences.

Difficulties with language, verbal memory, or following directions

These students have difficulty remembering or understanding written or verbal directions or explanations, and find word problems especially difficult to translate. They may have difficulties storing or accessing arithmetic information from their long-term memory. They make more errors in procedures, or “get stuck” and don’t remember what the teacher said in class.

Difficulty with Visual and Spatial Reasoning

Difficulty with Visual and Spatial Reasoning

Students with math difficulties often have difficulties visualizing math concepts. As a result, they must rely almost entirely on rote memorization of verbal or written descriptions of math concepts. These types of difficulties are more common in students who have nonverbal learning disabilities as well as math concerns. They may have difficulties misaligning numbers in long division or misplace numbers in columns or rows, resulting in errors. They may have difficulties understanding math through pictures or demonstration and prefer verbal instructions.

Attention Difficulties

A student with attention problems in math may be distracted or restless during math tasks. She may lose her place while working on a math problem or appear mentally fatigued or overly tired when doing math. She may understand how to work out math problems, but then make careless mistakes along the way. She may also become frustrated more easily. Oftentimes, by accommodating or working WITH the child’s focus concerns, mathematics performance improves. Difficulties with attention and working memory are often the reason that children count on their fingers, miscount, or have difficulties following a series of math steps. They simply get more distracted along the way.

What Can I do if my child is struggling with math?

Work with your child’s teacher

Share observations of the child’s mathematics profile and discuss where the breakdown is occurring. What are the worries or concerns? Does the child have problems with one of the areas above? Where do you see it happening?

Consider having your child evaluated for learning disabilities or other conditions

These types of evaluations can be done by psychologists, learning specialists, and sometimes schools. If your child does have a learning disability, or another concern that makes mathematics more difficult, you can request accommodations and support from school in the form of a 504 plan or an IEP. Accommodations can make a world of difference to a child who is struggling.

Identify and discuss the child’s strengths and interests.

How can they be used to enhance her mathematical skills and motivation to complete assignments? If your child is more verbal, then more verbal instructions are required. If your child is easily overwhelmed but seems to understand the material, breaking assignments down into smaller chunks may help. If your child is more visual, having pictures to represent the spatial relationships may help.

Talk with your child and acknowledge her feelings.

Moments of frustration common for children with mathematics problems (and for the parents who work with them). Help your child to take a few deep breaths and remember that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. This process creates a shared sense of optimism you are working toward a common goal. Remind your child about a “growth mindset” and that struggling through a subject like math could make him even stronger.

Eliminate stigma

Empathy can reduce discouragement and anxiety a great deal. You can explain that everyone has differences in the way they learn, and that it is often not related to intelligence or life potential. Reassure your child that you will help them her ways to help. Share how you had to overcome a difficult situation at school.

Emphasize optimism

Help your child understand that she can improve by working on her weaknesses and making her strengths stronger. These types of experiences will ultimately foster resiliency and growth on the part of your child. Point out future possibilities for success given their current strengths. Help children build a sense of control over their learning by encouraging them to be accountable for their own progress and using her own voice to ask for help at school.

Identify an “charismatic adult” or an adult who will work with them and support them

This could be a favorite teacher, a tutor, or a neighbor. Encourage children to be active partners with their mentors, and to work with them to succeed.

Challenges with learning can be very difficult for a child. But, they don’t have to reflect catastrophe or a life-long battle with success. In fact many of the world’s most talented people have struggled with some type of learning issue. The main goal is to keep going, reach out for help, and learn about yourself in the process.

I never lose. I win or I learn.

Nelson Mandella


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