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Spotting Students with Special Needs in Mathematics

Updated on November 25, 2008

Spotting Students with Special Needs in Mathematics

How are U.S. Students' Math Skills as a Whole?

After the release of the results of the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) exam, an exam given every four years to fourth and eighth grade students in nearly 60 countries, the media had a panic-driven heyday. "Economic time bomb: U.S. teens are among worst at math," screamed the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Herald announced that the "World crushes U.S. kids in math, science."

What was surprising was the reaction of Patrick Gonzales, who is head of the TIMSS analysis effort at the U.S. Department of Education's national center for education statistics following the announcement that U.S. fourth graders ranked twelfth in math and eighth graders came in fifteenth. What really worries him is not so much the mediocre performance of U.S. students compared to their peers in other countries, but the wide performance gap within the U.S. "When you break students into standard sociological groups-parents with college education, minorities-the gap between the top and bottom is greater within the United States than between U.S. and top-performing Dutch students." The differences between the performance of U.S. students and that of Singapore or Korea, the traditional leaders, "pale in comparison with the differences between white and black or poor and wealthy" within the U.S.

Mr. Gonzales' concern with the educational battle on the home front rather than overseas is understandable when one realizes that American students in wealthy U.S. suburban areas scored nearly as well as students in Singapore--the long time leaders in math. So clearly it isn't all U.S. students who are under-performing on these standardized tests, but it is also clear that there is an ever growing group of U.S. students with special needs in mathematics.

Defining Special Needs

I want to go over exactly what I mean when I use the term "special needs." Typically special needs refers to a student who required assistance above and beyond the usual teaching methods due to a learning or other disability. For the purposes of this article I wish to broaden the term to include students who have no actual disability, but simply don't perform as well in math and lack the benefits that top performing U.S. students have. Such students may include, but are not limited to students who are speaking English as a second language (a disadvantage perhaps, but certainly not a disability) students in violent and at-risk family situations, students whose parents lack the time, ability or interest in being positively involved in their education, and students who simply don't like math. Students who fall into all these categories often struggle in one or more subjects in school although the reasons may have nothing to do with raw ability. These are all students I will classify as having special needs in math along with the more traditional students with learning and other disabilities.

Spotting Students with Special Needs in Math

Of course not every student who may come from one of the circumstances described above will have special needs, so what are the signals we as parents and educators need to watch for? The obvious answer is low grades in math assignments and activities, but often by the time it is apparent that a student struggles with math, he or she has already decided that they "hate math" and "just don't get it" and it can be much more difficult to address the issue at that point. Implementing mathematics intervention and arithmetic intervention before a student reaches this stage can circumvent years of potential math struggles.

Students can experience math struggles at all different stages of mathematic learning, and won't necessarily have problems from the beginning. Mathematics intervention may need to take place as early as kindergarten, or may not be needed until much later. The following are different math skills representing differing levels of math learning where mathematic intervention is commonly necessary.

Basic Math Skills

Some signs that arithmetic intervention may be necessary on the basic level of number facts are:

  • the inability to recall basic math facts, procedures, rules, or formulas
  • being very slow to remember basic facts or pursue procedures
  • having difficulties with precision during mathematical work


Many students who require mathematics intervention are able to master basic number facts along with their peers, but have trouble with computing, or putting several basic math facts and processes together. Such students may:

  • have difficulties with handwriting numbers or signs that slow down work or make it hard to read later
  • have difficulty remembering previously encountered patterns
  • forget what he or she is doing in the middle of a math problem (this may also indicate an attention problem)
  • have difficulties sequencing multiple steps
  • lose focus of the final goal and get lost in the individual processes of a problem
  • feel overloaded when faced with a worksheet full of math exercises
  • not be able to copy problems correctly

Application of Mathematic Processes

Many students are able to learn and memorize formulas and math processes, but when asked to apply those principles to real life situations, say in word problems where problems are not stated numerically in a format they recognize they find it extremely difficult to apply what they know. Signs that these students may require mathematic intervention are that they may:

  • not be able to distinguish between what is important in a math problem and what is not, particularly in word problems that include irrelevant information
  • be unable to comprehend the reasonableness of solutions generated
  • find it difficult to switch between multiple processes necessary in a complex math problem
  • have difficulty interpreting and manipulating geometric figures
  • find it difficult to tell when processes can be grouped or merged and when they must be separated in a multi-step math problem

The Language of Math

For some students, mathematic intervention becomes necessary because of difficulties with understanding the language used in math. These students may or may not have special needs in reading, writing, and speaking. Math is unique among these disciplines because of the inherently difficult terminology, much of which they never hear outside of math class. A student requiring mathematics intervention for developing this skill may:

  • be confused by language and instructions in word problems
  • have trouble learning or recalling terms
  • have difficulty understanding directions given by the teacher
  • be unable to explain their confusion about math concepts and procedures
  • have difficulty reading and studying text books
  • have difficulty remembering assigned values or definitions in specific problems

Once you have identified students with special needs in math, it can be very helpful to try to understand the root of their struggle. The way a teacher or a parent approaches mathematics intervention with a student who merely needs more time to understand, memorize and compute basic math principles will likely differ from the way math is taught to a student with an actual math learning disability (called dyscalculia ). Simple strategies for teaching students who have difficulty understanding basic math concepts may be to:

  • encourage the student to work extra hard to 'visualize' math problems. Maybe even draw a picture to help understand the problem
  • take extra time to point out any visual information that may be provided (picture, chart, graph, etc.)
  • read the problem out loud with the student and have him or her listen very carefully. This allows the student to use his or her auditory skills (which may be a strength)
  • provide the student with an example of a similar problem done correctly
  • Give the student a real-life situation that would involve this type of problem, this helps with both visualizing and building connections between math and the real world
  • encourage students to do math problems on graph paper to keep the numbers in line
  • give the student uncluttered worksheets so that he or she is not overwhelmed by too much visual information
  • spend extra time memorizing math facts. Use rhythm or music to help the student memorize

Some student will have special needs in math that will require more intense arithmetic and mathematic intervention, and you may need to look for special resources to meet those needs.

Resources for Arithmetic Intervention and Mathematic Intervention

There are a number of resources available to both parents and educators to help students with special needs in math. Because each student learns differently and at his or her own pace, some of these resources and teacher helps may work better for your struggling students than others. Marilyn Burns is America's leading math educator and has been writing mathematic intervention books for forty years. Burns has recently added math software and games to her repertoire of mathematic intervention resources. Her most recent contribution the world of mathematic intervention is computer program called Do The Math. Do The Math focuses on basic arithmetic, including computation, number sense, and problem solving. This new program is designed around lessons that are based on a careful and thorough analysis of students' most common problems and errors. It provides all of the materials needed for teaching struggling students, and organizes them into clear, accessible, doable lessons that equip teachers with what they need to serve students who cannot keep up with peers without special assistance. Do The Math can be viewed at .

Books and workbooks by Marilyn Burns for students with special needs in math from first to eighth grade levels can be found here. These materials have met with great success in helping students with a variety of special needs in math catch up, and maintain competency in math skills.


1. Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study website.

2. U.S gap in test scores.

3. definition of special needs.

4. Math Learning Disabilities Article





Special Needs in Mathematics


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