There’s not enough time! No, this post isn’t about learning to tell time. It’s about helping special needs kids catch up in math. I have found it far easier to assist kids in “jumping” a couple of years in reading than making equivalent gains in math. Why is that? I have blamed myself much of time. Math is not my favorite subject and I haven’t had as much experience teaching kids with dyscalculia. Because reading problems affect performance in all other academic areas, I have provided disproportionate help in reading, if both math and reading are delayed. There is less stigma associated with a math disability than with dyslexia. And to top it off, approaches to math instruction in classrooms vary widely from district to district and year to year.
Educational specialists face a serious dilemma in helping kids with math disabilities: Every year, more facts and processes are “piled” on top of a shaky foundation. The kids I’ve supported typically lack the language of math, for starters. They have to be taught to recognize phrases which imply that quantities are being combined or separated. These kids also lack number sense; they don’t recognize unlikely or unreasonable answers. Ask these kids to find a number on a hundreds board and they panic; they don’t see any patterns at all. They struggle to visualize math problems and number lines. They never seem to know where to start when faced with problem solving. These kids typically struggle to memorize math facts. I’m currently teaching a fourth grader who cannot compute 2 + 3 without using his fingers.
Kids learn best when they can solve problems that are at a “just right” level: not too difficult but not too easy, either. In my experience, kids are not usually identified with math disabilities until they are already well below grade level expectations. This means they have spent a lot of time frustrated, copying others’ work, and trying desperately to memorize snippets from classroom instruction. Effective mathematics instruction allows time for kids to reason, to experiment with strategies, and to share that problem-solving experience with others (whether peers or teachers). When a student needs special education support in math, that time is shortened. As a specialist, I must now prioritize my instruction. My students’ peers are racing along the math road and we are crawling behind. An effective math assessment is a crucial first step. I must complete an informal assessment and review standardized testing, along with analysis of classroom work samples and teacher evaluations, in order to write an effective IEP.
I will be sharing more about effective strategies for teaching math, including current neuroeducational research that enables teachers like me to use brain-friendly teaching strategies. Stay tuned!