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Math disability in children: An overview

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By Diane Pedrotty Bryant, Ph.D.

What math skills are affected?

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA), a learning disability in mathematics can be identified in the area of mathematics calculation (arithmetic) and/or mathematics problem solving. Research confirms this definition of a math disability.

Math calculations

A child with a learning disability in math calculations may often struggle learning the basic skills in early math instruction where the problem is rooted in memory or cognitive difficulties. For example, research studies have shown that students who struggle to master arithmetic combinations (basic facts) compared to students who demonstrated mastery of arithmetic combinations showed little progress over a two-year period in remembering basic fact combinations when they were expected to perform under timed conditions. According to Geary (2004), this problem appears to be persistent and characteristic of memory or cognitive difficulties. Students with math calculations difficulties have problems with some or most of the following skills:

  • Identifying signs and their meaning (e.g., +, -, x, <, =, >, %, ?) Automatically remembering answers to basic arithmetic facts (combinations) such as 3 + 4 =?, 9 x 9 = ?, 15 - 8 = ?.
  • Moving from using basic (less mature) counting strategies to more sophisticated (mature) strategies to calculate the answer to arithmetic problems. For example, a student using a basic "counting all" strategy would add two objects with four objects by starting at 1 and counting all of the objects to arrive at the answer 6. A student using a more sophisticated "counting on" strategy would add two with four by starting with 4 and counting on 2 more to arrive at 6.
  • Understanding the commutative property (e.g., 3 + 4 = 7 and 4 + 3 = 7)
  • Solving multi-digit calculations that require "borrowing" (subtraction) and "carrying" (addition)
  • Misaligning numbers when copying problems from a chalkboard or textbook
  • Ignoring decimal points that appear in math problems
  • Forgetting the steps involved in solving various calculations

Math word problems

A learning disability in solving math word problems taps into other types of skills or processes. Difficulties with any of these skills can interfere with a child's ability to figure out how to effectively solve the problem.Your child may exhibit difficulty with some or most of the processes involved in solving math word problems such as:

  • Reading the word problem
  • Understanding the language or meaning of the sentences and what the problem is asking
  • Sorting out important information from extraneous information that is not essential for solving the problem
  • Implementing a plan for solving the problem
  • Working through multiple steps in more advanced word problems
  • Knowing the correct calculations to use to solve problems

Math rules and procedures

Students with a math disability demonstrate developmental delay in learning the rules and procedures for solving calculations or word problems. An example of a math rule includes "any number × 0 = 0." A procedure includes the steps for solving arithmetic problems such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. A delay means the child may learn the rules and procedures at a slower rate than his peer group and will need assistance in mastering those rules and procedures.

Math language

Some children have trouble understanding the meaning of the language or vocabulary of mathematics (e.g., greater than, less than, equal, equation). Unfortunately, unlike reading, the meaning of a math word or symbol cannot be inferred from the context. One has to know what each word or symbol means in order to understand the math problem. For instance, to solve the following problems, a child must understand the meaning of the symbols they contain: (3 + 4) x (6 + 8) =? or 72 < 108 True or False?

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 readers

"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 "
"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. "
"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. "
"yup my son has this help"
"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. "
"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?"
"Check out for support"
"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 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"
"'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:'"
"'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:'"