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Pebbles in Our Hands: Teaching Math to Children with Special Needs

By Kerry Jones

When we are small, we hold pebbles in our hands and learn to count them. One...two...three...four. Simple. Straightforward. Not a lot of room for error. But then our moms and dads and early caregivers push us past what we can touch with our fingers and ask us to count the street signs as we pass, or guess the number of beans in a jar, or keep up with the back and forth score of a sibling's basketball game. The challenge increases, but we can usually master the skills necessary to placate our elders. Then...school begins. And suddenly we are thrown into a world where the objects we lovingly manipulated are now represented by abstract symbols on a page. And those symbols are supposed to interact with other symbols to represent this whole new world we call "arithmetic."

Sound frustrating? It is - - especially for those with unique learning differences and special needs. Take that frustration and double it - - even quadruple it, perhaps. Whereas the average student can somehow learn to manipulate the symbols of math much like we manipulated those pebbles in our hands, children with special needs can face all kinds of different roadblocks on their way to math success.

Roadblock #1 - - Lack of visual demonstration
Many, if not a majority, of children with learning disabilities are visual learners. That means that they are only able to correctly process information when it is presented to them via a visual medium. Simply writing numbers and signs on the whiteboard is not enough. They need a visual bridge that will connect those symbols with the items they represent.

This roadblock can be overcome by using either real or virtual manipulatives in day to day math instruction, allowing the student to "see" how the problems work, rather than just accepting the abstract mathematical formulas. They can also benefit from seeing math used in everyday life by taking them shopping, using recipes, building with blocks, cutting play dough into fractions, and saving money for a special toy or treat. Color is also vitally important for visual learners. In learning sequential step math problems, it often helps the visual learner to have each step of the problem presented in a different color. Finally, making pictures in their minds, can help them with all sorts of memorization techniques. Many visual learners are able to memorize their multiplication tables quite easily if they have a picture story that goes along with each fact. Multimedia math programs such as Time4Learning math can greatly increase the success rate for these visual learners.

Roadblock #2 - - Mathematical Retention Difficulties
One of the most common complaints from parents of children with special needs is their inability to retain their math skills from year to year. It isn't unusual for them to have to learn their addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts almost from scratch after a summer's break. Unfortunately, rote drill only works for a certain percentage of students to increase long-term retention.
Other students may need additional strategies, based on their learning style, that help them master and keep the math facts in their memories. Visual learners, as we've learned, can memorize best when the facts are associated with a picture, or story. The Times Tales program is a good example of a math program using this technique successfully. Auditory learners, instead, often find mathematical success by learning songs or rhymes that cement the facts in their minds. Kinesthetic learners can make quick work of math facts that are taught with methods that engage their large muscle groups. Jumping hopscotch or playing four-square on the sidewalk with math facts drawn in the boxes is a fun and successful way to help them overcome their difficulty of traditional math memorization.

Roadblock #3 - - Part-to-Whole Learning
Almost all aspects of traditional mathematical instruction involve presenting a series of steps to the learner, and having them find the answer to the problem by moving sequentially through the steps. For sequential thinkers, this is a perfectly sensible way to learn. But many children with learning differences, are not sequential thinkers and struggle terribly trying to fit into that mold.

Many students with LD prefer to learn from whole-to-part, rather than the other way around. In fact, often these children actually have a strong sense of mathematical reasoning, and can sometimes come to the correct answer intuitively, but are completely unable to show how they came to their conclusion. Whole-to-part learners can sometimes even grasp advanced concepts in algebra and geometry before they can master their math facts. They do better when they understand the motivation behind what they are learning, instead of being asked to simply follow the steps. And much of the frustration can be overcome by not requiring them to "show their work". Children with this learning style should be allowed to experiment with math, and find pleasure in the theories and abstractions behind it, rather than being forced to get bogged down in too many calculations.

When the main roadblocks of difficulty are overcome, students with special needs can undoubtedly find success at arithmetic. Parents and teachers who are willing to take the extra time and effort to use creative strategies for presenting and teaching math to children with learning differences, will often find that they are quite able to keep pace with their peers. Moving past the "pebbles in our hands" can be more challenging for some children than others, but with the right support and guidance, any child can succeed in mathematics.

About the author

Kerry Jones is a freelance writer and web maintenance engineer in North Carolina. She has two sons, and has been homeschooling since 1999. She is a proponent of the Time For Learning Math Home Schooling Curriculum.

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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