Math Learning Difficulties: How to Keep Your Children on Track

[fa icon="calendar"] October 6, 2016 at 7:00 PM / by Conrad Nickels

Conrad Nickels


All parents have to do is look at the poor performance on standardized tests in the early grades to see that mathematics difficulties are widespread in modern classrooms.Nancy C. Jordan, PhD at University of Delaware and author of the 2010 article Early Predictors of Mathematics Achievement and Mathematics Learning Difficulties, summarizes the problem:

  • Many learners struggle with learning difficulties in mathematics throughout school.
  • Up to 10 percent of students are diagnosed with a learning disability, such as dyscalculia, in mathematics at some point in their school careers.
  • Mathematics learning difficulties and disabilities often are not identified until Grade 4.

Since basic number competencies develop in early primary, students who have undiagnosed math learning difficulties may have hard time keeping up with the class. Aggressive identification of learning issues and early intervention is absolutely essential.

Early Indications of Math Learning Issues

According to this PBS Parents story, five classifications of math skills need to be monitored for warning signs that may indicate early difficulties in math.

Number Facts. A student lacking skills in this area might be unable to grasp basic math facts, procedures, rules, or formulas. For example, simple adding and subtraction are progressively difficult because the child isn’t able to memorize and automatically recall a number fact like  9+7 = 16.

Computation. Even students who understand number facts may still stumble with computation. In this skill set, a child having trouble may simply get lost in the middle of a problem instead of solving it step by step. Another common problem is difficulty copying down problems correctly.

Knowledge Transfer. It is common for students with math learning difficulties to find it difficult to connect abstract or conceptual aspects with the real world. This can manifest as an inability to determine which part of a problem is most important – especially in word problems. Having difficulty identifying geometric figures is another indication that knowledge transfer hasn’t been mastered.

The Language of Math. Some kids may have difficulties with reading, writing, and comprehension that prevent them from becoming skilled in following simple math problem directions. These students may also feel overwhelmed by the language when confronted with word problems.

Spatial Reasoning.  Another area where some children struggle is visualizing math concepts. For example, a student who lacks spatial ability may not be able to judge the relative size of three dissimilar objects and/or will demonstrate difficulty in visualizing what a three-dimensional shape would look like if it were rotated.

RELATEDWhat is Spatial Reasoning & How Can it Improve Students' Math Ability?

Strategies to Help With Math Difficulties

PBS Kids also offers these suggestions to help young children who are struggling in mathematics:

  • Maintain consistency at home and at school by coordinating efforts between students, teachers, tutors, parents and other caregivers.
  • Teach basic concepts with tactile objects such as blocks and crayons to enhance spatial abilities and crayons, to reinforce counting and learning of addition and subtraction.
  • Provide specialized materials such as lined paper for keeping kids organized as they do problems with multiple steps and graph paper as they start working with shapes and angles.
  • Make expectations explicit by showing and telling kids what procedures they should use before starting to work on a problem.
  • Provide time for checking work and require kids to work all problems correctly on classwork, homework, quizzes, and tests before advancing to the next set of problems or topic.
  • Offer kids an opportunity to use math in everyday life such as giving them rulers for measuring the height of their classmates or siblings.
  • Help children apply math to new situations like using a percentage to show how much money they actually save when there’s a 25 percent off sale.
  • Provide access to tutors and enrichment programs both during the school year and summer to strengthen basic math skills, maintain progress, and prevent skill and knowledge loss.
  • Encourage kids to play math games that are fun and that help develop basic skills and number fluency.

Enjoyable experiences with math during the preschool years can positively affect later success in school for kids. Being vigilant once preschoolers start school is also important. Children should be monitored for the first signs of any math learning difficulties, especially before the first grade. If you find an issue, move quickly to address it with the appropriate strategies.

What kinds of practical and fun ideas do you use for increasing math fluency in early learners? Please leave a comment. We’d love to share your helpful advice with our community of readers.


Zorbit's Math Adventure is a fun and engaging online math game, currently available for kindergarten and grade 1 teachers and students. This adaptive, game-based learning program will improve your student's experiences with math, increase their level of understanding and performance, and will allow you to view your entire class's game performance from a high-level overview.

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Conrad Nickels

Written by Conrad Nickels

Director of Education and Lead Designer at Zorbit's Math Adventure, using game-based learning and ed-tech to make math your greatest ally.

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