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Working with Your Child's Teacher to Identify and Address Math Disabilities

An expert explains how math disabilities are identified and how parents can work with teachers to help their kids.

By Diane Pedrotty Bryant, Ph.D.

Educators and researchers are beginning to pay more attention to the notion that some students have difficulty learning math skills and concepts taught in today's classrooms. It is important for school personnel and parents to work together to identify math problems when they arise and to address them both at school and home. Identifying and addressing math difficulties in the early grades can potentially prevent more serious problems in later grades. This article will explain how children are identified as having a math disability and suggest ways to work with your child's teacher to address the problems.

How Are Math Disabilities Identified?

Mathematics disabilities are identified through a variety of procedures. Usually the classroom teacher or parent observes that the child is having persistent difficulty learning mathematics and tends to perform poorly on classroom math assessments compared to the rest of the class. For example, the child may have trouble remembering what the teacher has taught or she may have difficulty using effective strategies to solve math problems. By observing and working directly with a child over time, the teacher can determine if her difficulty learning mathematics is persistent. Unfortunately, mathematics disabilities are usually not identified until the upper elementary school years because early problems often go undetected and assessment results may not be sensitive enough to detect a problem until the later grades.

Information about the child's performance can be gathered in several ways. Weekly tests, homework, and class work samples are examples of information the teacher can collect about the child's progress learning the mathematics curriculum. The teacher may adapt how instruction is provided to accommodate a child's learning needs and then note how the child responds to those adaptations. The teacher may also seek assistance from a specialist or school support team who can offer additional ideas about how to adapt instruction for the child who is struggling to learn the curriculum. The teacher may also consult with the child's parents to understand how the child is doing on math homework. All of this information helps the teacher and school support team develop a profile of the child's learning difficulties and her response to instruction and adaptations.

If the child continues to exhibit learning problems, a formal referral for special education assessment might be recommended. There are a variety of formal assessments that can be used to identify math skills and concepts that are problematic for the child. Some of these measures are specific to the curriculum, some are diagnostic in nature, and others are viewed as measures of achievement. The school psychologist or other diagnostician determines which assessment measures to use for testing purposes. The following are examples of some of the more common assessment measures:

Curriculum-based assessments relate specifically to the skills and concepts typically taught in a certain grade level. Examples include:

  • Brigance Comprehensive Inventory of Basic Skills-Revised
  • Brigance Inventory of Essential Skills

Diagnostic assessments provide information about a student's strengths and weaknesses compared to students of the same age or grade level. Examples include:

  • Key Math-Revised
  • Stanford Diagnostic Mathematics Test-4

Achievement assessments broadly measure areas of academic knowledge and application and compare a child's performance to that of students of the same age or grade level. Examples include:

  • Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement
  • Peabody Individual Achievement Test-Revised
  • Wide Range Achievement Test-3
  • Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-Educational Battery, Part Two: Tests of Achievement

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

02/9/2011:
"I have been doing IEP meetings since 1st grade. My daughter has a learning disability with math. I have done everything this article has send since 1st grade and now she is in 8th grade and still can't divide, multiply, subtract or add big numbers. My daughter just keeps getting pushed along to the next grade. When I tell them to keep her back a grade they refuse and give her passing grades. The rule is no child left behind, so they just keep pushing her through. Don't know what to do. Just know that she will be moving on to the high school next year and she is going to have an even harder time there. signed Lost"
07/20/2010:
"However sometimes you do work with the teachers and in particular if the child has a learning disability you both put it down to their mind. My daughter ended up with hardly any qualifications because that is what teacher and mother both thought. Teacher and myself, however years later it has now been discovered she has Dyscalcualia in Maths. So please don't always put everything down to the childs disability or brain, which it was but I could have done more. She had a wrong diagnosis. Push for further investigations because I believe she would have got more help at school had we known it was Dyscalcaulia in maths."
07/22/2009:
"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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