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Making Math Manageable


Math is used on a daily basis: to figure out what time to leave the house in order to get somewhere on time, to budget expenses, or even to measure ingredients for recipes. Math is going to be a part of your child’s life, whether they like it or not - and most of them do not! Can we really blame them? It’s a complex process, and rightfully can be incredibly frustrating for children with unique needs. Math relies heavily on memory, organization and attention - all of which are particularly difficult for any child with executive function challenges. In addition to all of these obstacles, there seems to be a growing trend of the importance of math in order to be successful in school. In this day and age, kids are naturally under added pressure to excel at math and choose a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). This is the perfect equation to make a special needs kid even more anxious about math. When a child is worried about something, it's almost always more difficult to learn.

It's important to get past any anxiety they are feeling. If they have already developed self-defeating thoughts (e.g. that math is too hard and they are not good at it), that needs to be your first focus. It’s important to hear your child’s anxiety and validate it. Share that math is difficult for everyone, and that you understand they have additional obstacles that you will help them overcome. Share stories of times you struggled in school and then conquered your struggles. Most importantly, be there to help de-escalate any time you see your child getting frustrated while working on math and reassure them that they are doing a great job.

Child making math calculations

Think about learning math in school the same way you think of building a tower out of blocks. Those bottom blocks need to be solid and sturdy if the tower can grow taller. A child needs a good handle on basic math facts in order to move onto more complicated math concepts.

Making Math a Habit

Create a positive association with math starting from a very young age (although it is never too late to start), the same way you may have already done with reading. Many parents read for pleasure with their children daily, but many do not take the time to build math skills in the same way. Create a habit to count everything! If you’re walking, you can count the number of steps it takes you to get to where you are going. If you’re sitting still, you can count the number of cars that drive by. Everything in this world is countable. Once they have mastered counting, move onto addition and subtraction. As your child is brushing their teeth in the morning, count their top teeth, count their bottom teeth, and then ask them how many they have in total. When you give them their dinner plate, count each different food item separately and then ask them how many total pieces of food they have. Have your child count as they are cleaning up toys to figure out how many more toys they have left to clean up.

As your child moves on to multiplication, do not forget to point out the rows and columns in everyday items like egg cartons or ice cube trays and ask them how many total items are in the container. Your child can figure out how many windows a multi-story building has by multiplying. When packing a suitcase, have your child calculate how many socks they will need by multiplying by 2. The possibilities are endless throughout the day, and every simple math fact that you complete with your child will only make their math foundation stronger.

Recalling basic math facts quickly is an essential skill for your child to be successful at math in school and also as they use math in their daily life. As the math gets more complex, there are other ways to help them succeed. There are also several tools at your disposal.

Tools to Help Kids with Math

A mnemonic is a great tool for helping your child remember math steps. Arguably the most widely recognized mathematical mnemonic is "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" (PEMDAS) to help kids solve order of operation problems. The mnemonic device helps them remember the order of operations without having to remember a boring set of words like Parentheses, Exponents, Multiply, Divide, Add, Subtract. Another kid-friendly memory device to help remember long division steps is "Dumb Monkeys Sell Bananas" (Divide, Multiply, Subtract, Bring Down).

Child doing math assignment

Music is another remarkable tool to help kids recall important math foundations. A quick internet search will present you with a ton of memorable tunes which will help your child memorize required math skills - from ballads about mental math to raps about area and perimeter. Music is also proven to increase levels of dopamine in the brain, which can be in low supply in children with ADHD.

Other Useful Math Strategies

Some other helpful strategies to help your children with math include:

  • When possible, break down the instructions into the smallest available steps to make it easier for your child to focus on one thing at a time instead of being overwhelmed with multiple steps.
  • Keep a neatly written out step-by-step example right in front of them that they can reference whenever they get lost in a problem.
  • Provide real-life examples to help make difficult math concepts come alive.
  • Always limit any unnecessary distractions. Math is hard enough without having to deal with external stimuli making it even more difficult.
  • Keep sensory items nearby. Your child will be able to focus better with their favorite fidget toy in their hand or some gum in their mouth.
  • Avoid setting a deadline for completion of the work because the deadline can trigger an unpleasant anxiety reaction.

The good thing about math is that it is repetitive. The other good thing is that Goally can help your child create good habits that will stay with them for the rest of their life. If your child is having trouble with a particular math concept, you can create a Goally routine tailored to their needs. Here is an example of a math routine that one child uses to solve word problems:

Math does not have to be an unrelenting source of stress in your house. Goally is here to help!

Learn more about Goally.

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Jamie Topliffe is a former project manager and mother of three residing in Bridgewater, NJ. She is passionate about creating awareness and acceptance for the special needs community.

Editor's note: This information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as needed, with a qualified healthcare provider and/or BCBA.