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Math disability in children: An overview

Learn about the signs and sources of a learning disability in math -- and how to detect them in your child.

By Diane Pedrotty Bryant, Ph.D.

Recently, increased attention has focused on students who demonstrate challenges learning mathematics skills and concepts that are taught in school across the grade levels. Beginning as early as preschool, parents, educators, and researchers are noticing that some students seem perplexed learning simple math skills that many take for granted. For example, some young children have difficulty learning number names, counting, and recognizing how many items are in a group. Some of these children continue to demonstrate problems learning math as they proceed through school. In fact, we know that that 5% to 8% of school-age children are identified as having a math disability.

Research on understanding more completely what a math disability means and what we can do about it in school has lagged behind similar work being done in the area of reading disabilities. Compared to the research base in early reading difficulties, early difficulties in mathematics and the identification of math disability in later years are less researched and understood. Fortunately, attention is now being directed to helping students who struggle learning basic mathematics skills, mastering more advance mathematics (e.g., algebra), and solving math problems. This article will explain in detail what a math disability is, the sources that cause such a disability, and how a math disability impacts students at different grade levels.

What is a math disability?

A learning disability in mathematics is characterized by an unexpected learning problem after a classroom teacher or other trained professional (e.g., a tutor) has provided a child with appropriate learning experiences over a period of time. Appropriate learning experiences refer to practices that are supported by sound research and that are implemented in the way in which they were designed to be used. The time period refers to the duration of time that is needed to help the child learn the skills and concepts, which are challenging for the child to learn. Typically, the child with a math disability has difficulty making sufficient school progress in mathematics similar to that of her peer group despite the implementation of effective teaching practices over time. Studies have shown that some students with a math disability also have a reading disability or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD). Other studies have identified a group of children who have only a math disability.

Several sources of math disability

When a child is identified as having a math disability, his difficulty may stem from problems in one or more of the following areas: memory, cognitive development, and visual-spatial ability.

Memory

Memory problems may affect a child's math performance in several ways. Here are some examples:

  • A child might have memory problems that interfere with his ability to retrieve (remember) basic arithmetic facts quickly.
  • In the upper grades, memory problems may influence a child's ability to recall the steps needed to solve more difficult word problems,to recall the steps in solving algebraic equations, or to remember what specific symbols (e.g., å, s, ?, ?) mean.
  • Your child's teacher may say, "He knew the math facts yesterday but can't seem to remember them today."
  • While helping your child with math homework, you may be baffled by her difficulty remembering how to perform a problem that was taught at school that day.

Cognitive development

Students with a math disability may have trouble because of delays in cognitive development, which hinders learning and processing information. This might lead to problems with:

  • understanding relationships between numbers (e.g., fractions and decimals; addition and subtraction; multiplication and division)
  • solving word problems
  • understanding number systems
  • using effective counting strategies

Visual-spatial

Visual-spatial problems may interfere with a child's ability to perform math problems correctly. Examples of visual-spatial difficulties include:

  • misaligning numerals in columns for calculation
  • problems with place value that involves understanding the base ten system
  • trouble interpreting maps and understanding geometry.

Diane Pedrotty Bryant, Ph.D. is the associate dean for teacher education and a professor in the department of special education at The University of Texas at Austin. Her current research work includes conducting intervention research in early mathematics.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/4/2010:
"My daughter Kylie who is in the 4th grade has almost ever issue mentioned in the article 'Math disability in Children'. I noticed Dr. Diane Pedrotty Bryant is here in Austin. I would give anything to meet with her and briefly discuss all of our concerns in hopes of receiving 'any' directions that would help my daughter. I am so desperate! It breaks my heart to see her so willing to learn but it is so difficult for her. I pulled her out of the RRISD 2 years ago because the teachers were simply ignoring her needs (she was even in Special Ed) and she was just sitting day after day in the classroom doing virtually nothing. Kids were teasing her and no one seem to care enough to help. I have taken her to numerous doctors who recommended ADD medicine that made no difference, she has been through years of OT, Speech, tutoring, and anything else I could find that might help her. Now that I am home schooling she is at least happy and not being teased. Her confidence is up an! d she is learning. I am just desperately seeking help as to what I should or should not be doing to help her be as successful as she possibly can be. Please Dr. Bryant, want take just a few minutes to meet with me? I promise to keep it short and to the point. Thank you for taking the time to at least read this email. Sincerely, Sherry Jennings 905 Catalpa Cove Round Rock, TX 78665 512-658-7176 "
11/24/2009:
"My son exhibits issues with math, but reads at 6.2 grade level in 3d grade. He has a pheriphal eye problems.We asked for his work to be enlarged.When they do it he goes up 1 to 2 grade levels.When they dont he is one off from the correct answer. any suggestions to help. "
10/27/2009:
"Please parents, don't be so quick to label your children LD, having helped my children with their homework throughout these yrs, ( 9th grader & 3rd grader) I can say honestly, the kids are not learning correctly at school anymore, if you notice they jump around with all kinds of different topics, therefore they are not able to really master anything, I copied a list of all the things they are expected to learn for those standardized tests & as a mom, I am very disgusted, they are being forced to handle entirely too much work in too short of a time frame, If schools would break down the work & teach in sections the kids would do much better, EX: Kdg- Number sense(give them 2-3 wks to learn a topic,like counting, then place value,then adding which consists of regular addition, then regrouping addition-- next subtraction, then regrouping subtraction-- etc. I believe if they try that, by the end of the yr. the kids would be blowing their minds with all that they have actually learned, then send math packets home for the summer to keep them sharp, once they return back to school start all over again (2-3 wks on those topics again). constant repetition with longer time frames to master concepts being taught, should real! ly help our children develop all they need to excel in math then. Maybe we as parents should start seeing what part we can play in changing this foolish system they have in place. they are stressing our kids out unneccessarily, not to mention the parents who are having to help them learn this math too. "
10/19/2009:
"yup my son has this help"
09/24/2009:
"I am so frustrated with my daughter. I spoke to the teacher for 30 min about her acting so helpless in class. she can't grasp or remember basic addition, subtraction, monies, and time. I am at such a loss. Does anyone have information on testing for math disabilities? I am in ogle county. she was on ADHD meds but it made her sick. I need a new pediatrician again too. "
09/16/2009:
"This is a very informative article. I've encountered something this year that I've never seen. I have a third grade student that doesn't recognize numbers. Is this dyscalculia?"
07/24/2009:
"Check out http://dyscalculiaforum.com for support"
07/21/2009:
"This article is very informative, I now understand and beleive that my child has Dyscalculia. Although, I'm pretty sure that she does not have the complete inability to calculate. She maybe somewhere in the middle if that make any sence...it seems to take her a little longer (far more than her peers)to comprehend the matematical concept. Are there any teachers any more who truely care about a students (my childs) academic acheivements ? If so, what school is that? Can someone please tell me where I can actually get help for my child (4th grader)who is having trouble with math. Paying for a tutor or sending my child to an learning center is financially out of the question due to economic hardship. Does anyone have any information on where can I get/find a tutor if the school does not offer qualified teachers to teach students with Dyscalculia. I can't seem to find anywhere nor anyone in Georgia that offer free/low cost tutoring, a after school program which is academically ab! le to help students with Dyscalculia or even a teacher who is willing to teach my child. Please help. An Concerned Parent"
06/23/2009:
"'Want some additional information, answers to questions, or support? Please consider joining and posting them at the 'Learning and Attention Difficulties' group found here at GS to receive to receive practical suggestions from parents who have faced similar challenges: http://community.greatschools.org/groups/11554'"
06/23/2009:
"'Want some additional information, answers to questions, or support? Please consider joining and posting them at the 'Learning and Attention Difficulties' group found here at GS to receive to receive practical suggestions from parents who have faced similar challenges: http://community.greatschools.org/groups/11554'"
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