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Learning — Math

Dyscalculia and Problems With Math

Little boy frustrated by math problem.

Marcy Willard


Last modified 05 Sep 2023

Published 24 Feb 2022

What Are Math Issues In Childhood?

Math issues in childhood are difficulties with mathematics.

Mathematics skills are used in completing math computations, solving problems, and understanding visual-spatial relationships throughout the lifespan. In everyday life, we use math in telling time, reading a calendar, measuring cooking ingredients, shopping for goods, and many other things. 

Learning math facts, basic fractions, geometry, and other calculations is not easy for some children. A child may be a great reader but scratch their head and tune out during math.

Children with math challenges will struggle despite effort and practice. Some children are proficient in math calculation but struggle with the language and conceptual aspects of explaining their thinking. Others struggle with the skills required to understand shapes, figures, graphs, and visual relationships. 

Symptoms of Math Issues in Children

Math is more than just a part of academics. It is essential for everyday life. We often think that math is an innate skill, but children can learn it. Symptoms of math issues in children are:

  • Hating math: It may be that your child loves school in general but hates math
  • Saying they are bad at math: They may study hard but still fail math tests
  • Understanding conceptually but still getting the answers wrong: Your child might be proficient in math calculation but struggle with story problems 
  • Not remembering addition or multiplication facts: You may have repeatedly reviewed math facts with your child, but they still cannot remember them
  • Requiring lots of help with homework: Your child may be lost on assignments, unsure how to approach a new problem, or not know what operation to use
  • Becoming easily frustrated on math assignments: Your child may love reading and writing stories, but avoid math and science at all cost
  • Studying hard but still failing math tests: Maybe you review and review and practice on end, but the grades do not match
  • Crying at the table over long division homework: Does math work generate tears and upset?
  • Getting good grades in Language Arts but failing math: The mismatch of skills in various subjects may be an indicator that something is wrong in math or the skills we use to process this kind of learning

Causes of Math Issues in Children

Your child’s math skills should develop along a continuum. Just like the importance of language literacy, math skills are essential for academic success and functioning in life.

Challenges in math may be due to several factors. 

Challenges with mathematics may be called a specific learning disorder in mathematics, a math disability, or dyscalculia. The terminology depends on who identifies or diagnoses the challenge. These terms for math disability are relevant if your child has a processing deficit that impacts their performance in math. Here, working memory and attention are underlying causes of the math disability. 

The overarching category of neurodevelopmental disorders includes learning disabilities, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and others. Sometimes, a child with ADHD or ASD may also have a disability in an area of learning like math or reading. 

Some common processing deficits may be noted across these disabilities. Two examples of processing deficits are processing speed and focused attention. Difficulty in either of these processes might impact a child’s performance in math. If a child is not processing the information, they are not learning math facts, procedures, implementing steps effectively, etc. 

An example may be a challenge with focused attention that impacts a child’s ability to do mental math. They cannot attend to a large amount of information and use working memory to hold on to it long enough to solve the problem. This child may be able to work math problems on paper but never process them in their head. 

Some causes of math issues in children are:

  • Conceptual: Some children are proficient in math calculation but struggle with the language and abstract conceptual aspects of explaining their thinking.
  • Process: Most current math curriculums require students to describe how they arrived at their answers to receive full points. It is not enough to know the answer; one also must be able to apply the concepts to novel problems.
  • Explanation: Even mathematically inclined children may struggle with explaining their thinking processes.
  • Mistakes/Attention: It may be that your child possesses strength in understanding math concepts but makes careless mistakes in calculation, resulting in wrong answers and much frustration.
  • Processing Speed: Your child may not be processing math facts and teaching fast enough to complete their work on time. They may need extra time that is not always available to them within the classroom.
  • Executive Function: A child may struggle with working memory, planning, or organizing information, for example. Perhaps, with help in these areas, they can complete accurate calculations. Doing math relies on understanding the problem, organizing the information, and knowing what processes to employ to solve it.
  • Calculation: Finally, it could be that your child struggles with calculation and procedural math. In this case, they may understand what is being asked, but they cannot process the calculations or step-by-step procedures needed to get the right answer.

What to Do About Math Issues in Children

Math is an important part of development and learning. Children who struggle in math are likely to have trouble with other academic areas. Though math is critically important, it is often not given the same attention as literacy. 

DO work on it with them: The principles of one-to-one correspondence (counting while pointing to the correct object in the sequence), subitizing (seeing how many objects there are without counting them), and place value (knowing that in the number “10,” the number “1” represents “10”) are of just as much importance as knowing one’s ABC’s.

Math skills will serve your child throughout life, or they may hamper their success through school and beyond.

DO consider interventions or assessment: If your child struggles with math beyond kindergarten or first grade, it is important to put interventions in place or have an assessment.  If your child in elementary school cannot count with one-to-one correspondence, assess place value, or properly follow steps for addition and subtraction, then you have adequate reason to be concerned.

DO talk to your teacher and school team: Talk to your school about your child’s problems in math. Your child scoring below the 12th percentile or approximately two grade levels behind peers may qualify them for special education services.

DO see what programs your school has: Alternatively, it may be that weekly tutoring or intervention in the classroom can meet your child’s needs. Most public schools have a Response to Intervention (RtI) program in which students receive evidence-based interventions targeting the specific area of need. As a parent, you can request that your child be referred to the RtI process. If your child’s progress does not appear to be sufficient (and their scores are significantly below the benchmarks), most schools will then consider an evaluation for special education services.

DON’T wait and see: If you are concerned that your early elementary school child is not making progress in math, seek support now. Do not assume they will catch up or have a better teacher next year or figure it out on their own.

When to Seek Help for Math Issues in Children

If you have significant concerns about your child’s math skills, you can formally request an evaluation from your school or go to an outside clinic to have your child’s academic abilities tested. If an outside evaluation reports learning problems, consider taking the formal report to your child’s school to seek a comprehensive evaluation for services.

Further Resources on Math Issues in Children

  • Psychologist: to conduct a full assessment to look at symptoms in mental health context and determine diagnoses and recommendations. Challenges need to be treated differently based on the diagnosis.
  • School Psychologist: to assess challenges with math within the context of overall achievement and on the developmental continuum. If math skills fall at or below the 12th percentile and/or two grade levels behind peers, the child may qualify for Special Education services. 
  • Occupational Therapist: to consider problems with handwriting or motor skills that may be impacting performance in all written work, including letter and number formation
  • Learning Specialist (Special Education Teacher): to potentially provide small group or 1:1 intervention to improve math skills

Similar Conditions to Math Issues

  • Inflexibility or rigid behavior: children who need things just so and are not flexible to try new things may have problems in math because they may refuse new approaches to solving problems
  • Reading problems: children who struggle with symbolic representations also likely have trouble in math
  • Learning problems: children with problems in organization and planning will likely have issues with their math skills
  • Executive functioning: children with problems with metacognition and logical reasoning will likely have issues with their math skill development because they may not know how to organize and plan out an approach to a problem
  • Intelligence: children with cognitive problems may struggle in math, particularly as math moves from the more concrete to the more abstract because of the cognitive complexity of the task
  • Non-verbal IQ: children who have challenges with logic and pattern processing will likely have issues with math calculation

References on Math Issues

[1] Marsico Institute 2016 STEM Symposium at white house Washington, DC – April 21st, 2016: Marsico’s Co-Executive Director Dr. Douglas Clements was honored to be a featured speaker at the White House for an Early Childhood STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Symposium, where he spoke to a packed audience about the vital role that math education plays in early learning and cognitive development…sharing that, early exposure to STEM “has positive impacts across the entire spectrum of learning.”

[2] Sumdog: Fun math games website for kids in elementary grade levels.

[3] Old-fashioned flash-card intervention may still be the best-practice intervention for math facts issues. Math War Addition and Subtraction Game Cards (April 15, 2015) School Zone Publishing Company Staff.

[4] Ixl: Math and language arts practice using online skill progression by grade level for grades K-12.

[5] Multiplication baseball. Electronic games for memorizing multiplication facts.