A Comprehensive Look at Learning Disabilities and Math Development

Learning Disabilities And Math Development by Kristen Atkins Head of School, Winston Prep, Marin, CA

Math, who needs it? We all do! It is a sobering fact that many students with learning differences are falling behind in the study of mathematics. According to a study completed by the National Research Council entitled, “Everybody Counts: A Report to the Nation on the Future of Mathematics Education”, only half of our nation’s students take more than two years of high school level mathematics. 
In our global economy that is becoming more dependent on technological and engineering innovations, this causes one to pause and ponder – what needs to be done?

Math Anxiety

A recent article, Why Americans are Bad at Math,” (Sian Beilock, President of Barnard College) discussed how math anxiety is probably one of the key issues to consider when we think about our students and the math levels they achieve. Our society readily mocks one’s abilities in math. There are cartoons that make fun of people who do not like math; there are t-shirts that say “English major – you do the math.” We hear politicians, authors, actors, and entrepreneurs who will quickly confess that they were “not good at math”. We even have well-meaning educators who, to console a struggling math student, might state that they too struggled with math but it is okay. These societal norms infiltrate our math perceptions and contribute to the ideology that math is hard and only “smart” or “nerdy” people are good at math. Students with learning challenges will quickly identify with this mindset and it becomes the norm to find the study of mathematics challenging and anxiety-producing.

How Learning Disabilities Can impact Math Development

Math has a vocabulary that is content-specific and as a child progresses through each grade level, different teachers and/or textbooks may use different terms to describe a math term. For example, in grade 2, a teacher might describe the number in the top part of a fraction as just that – the number in the top part of the fraction. Then in grade 4 this same student might be introduced to the term “numerator” without creating this key link to previous knowledge and confusion begins. Another example are words for subtraction such as “take-away”, “minus”,“less than” or “finding the difference” – these terms can be used interchangeably with teachers, parents and tutors and students with language based learning differences will encounter moments of uncertainty about what to do when encountering these words. Additionally, symbols change over time in math. In elementary school an “x” is used to represent multiplication but when a student enters algebra, this is replaced with a dot or a set of parenthesis and the “x” now represents a variable.

Winston Preparatory School’s Approach

At Winston, our teachers are well versed in understanding how vocabulary in math must be explicitly taught and reviewed through context and experience. We also look closely at visual spatial skills and scaffold math instruction through color coding, reviewing procedural knowledge and breaking the whole into parts. We use manipulatives to develop strong number sense and point out relationships, which are often assumed, in all our math lessons to ensure that everyone is understanding all the details. Conceptual knowledge is intertwined with procedural knowledge and we constantly work towards a growth mindset in math by incorporating our qualities for a sustainable learner in all our lessons.

How You Can Help Your Child at Home

Encourage your child to see the beauty of mathematics by showing them that math is found in art, music, sports, nature, architecture and technology. Read books to your children that focus on math principals – a favorite is The Number Devil. Encourage your child to make math estimates during your time at home. Ask questions about “how many cups of milk would we need for the entire box of cereal?” Even if their answers are not totally accurate, have a dialog and guess together. When driving in the car, play number games, “I am thinking of a number that is an even number. It is bigger than 20 and less than 30. What could it be?” Of course, take out the board games too! The most important thing you can do for your child is to provide them with consistent and excellent education in math and refrain from saying things like “math is hard” or “I wasn’t good at math.” We would not say that about reading so take on the mission of recalibrating our perceptions of math. And the next time you see a cartoon or a funny t-shirt that implies that math is too hard – take a moment to change the world by advocating for the beauty in math!
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Winston Preparatory School is a leading school for students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, executive functioning difficulties (ADHD) and non-verbal learning disorders (NVLD).

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