Many kids have trouble with math, but some students find it more difficult than others. These may be otherwise bright children who have a keen sense of logic and reasoning but still perform poorly on homework, tests, and quizzes. Over time, repeated underperformance in math can cause a student to become demotivated and believe he or she is “stupid” or not good at the subject. Moreover, as math is cumulative, falling behind might mean a learner misses out on much of what is taught for the rest of the school term. Having basic math skills is important, regardless of the career an individual chooses to pursue. That’s why it’s key to identify issues early on. Given the right combination of classroom accommodations and learning strategies, every student can achieve his or her full potential in math.
How we think about math matters
Who struggles with math?
Research has shown that math is a subject in which success is highly affected by psychological factors, including anxiety. Anxiety is more than just a sense of worry – it’s a chemical reaction in the brain that can inhibit cognitive processing and cause physical symptoms, including fast breathing, heart palpitations and sweating. Math anxiety may cause individuals who are otherwise strong students to freeze on a school quiz or exam. They can have difficulty finding a way into a problem, misread questions, or complete far fewer problems than they are capable of. Many students with anxiety make careless mistakes because of the stress they are experiencing in the moment, and generally their timed assessment work is of a poorer quality than classroom activities or assignments completed at home. Math anxiety is not necessarily about being bad at math and it can affect learners across the spectrum of ability levels – even gifted children. Nonetheless it generally results in lower marks that undermine a learner’s confidence. This mismatch between grades and knowledge/skills can be both discouraging and demotivating for students. In worst-case scenarios, a child may begin to show signs of math avoidance and display a negative attitude toward school and learning as a result of the anxiety.
Learners with dyscalculia have trouble doing basic arithmetic and may struggle to learn math facts. As under 5s they might have taken longer than their peers to master counting. Dyscalculia can impact on estimation abilities and spatial reasoning too; these students might not be able to read time on clocks, make comparative judgements of size, or identify math symbols. It’s common for dyscalculia to co-present with other specific learning differences, like dyslexia, as well as attention difficulties.
Dyslexia is a different way of processing in the brain which can make it more likely that students flip number and letter shapes, reverse numbers, or mix up their order. For example, copying a multi-digit number from one line to another can result in the student dropping a digit or adding one that wasn’t there. There can also be problems that come from processing written language, as dyslexia affects a child’s ability to hear the sounds that make up words. This complicates reading and can impact on comprehension of word problems. Students with dyslexia may need to reread a paragraph several times to understand it, they can easily lose their place when doing work out by hand, and may take much more time than their peers to get through the initial stages of understanding a prompt. This will consequently leave them less time to complete the actual math required to find the solution.
Dyspraxia can impact on the fine motor skills needed to hold a pen or pencil. Because most long form math is done by hand, dyspraxic students may struggle to show the steps they used to arrive at an answer. The can easily become distracted or frustrated by the pain of handwriting and may be more likely to give up or abandon a question before solving it. Dyspraxia can also affect planning and organizational skills. As solving more complex problems involves a degree of planning as to how you will arrive at the answer, dyspraxic learners may find it difficult to get started. They can also struggle with the sequence of steps and correct order of operations in math.
Attention difficulties can affect math skills in a number of ways. For one thing, they make it harder to pay attention in class. Working through a math problem requires you to track multiple steps; the answer to one line informs the next. If a student drifts in and out of attention they might find it very challenging to follow a teacher’s demonstration and understand how a certain number has been derived. Maintaining focus is also a problem for doing work out by hand and checking work once a problem has been completed.
One of the most important parts of doing a math problem is being able to put your thinking down on paper. This is so you can work in steps because holding multiple calculations in your head at one time puts a strain on cognitive resources and increases the chances of error. However, for learners with dysgraphia, writing “math thinking” down can be a challenge. Dysgraphic students might struggle with forming numbers and symbols, organizing numbers spatially, and copying text from the board when taking notes. They can have messy and disorganized written work that can be hard for them to read and cause them to get the wrong answer, even if the approach they took was correct. Learn more about dysgraphia in this post.
Learners with visual processing disorders may have difficulty with math problems that involve spatial reasoning, including geometry, reading tables, reading maps and both discriminating and identifying different numbers. Learn more about visual processing disorders in this post.