I remember in elementary school memorizing my math times tables… what stands out most to be is the “mad minute.”
It was a short quiz of 20 multiplication problems and we were given one minute to complete them… and it could probably be defined as the most stressful 60 seconds of my young life!
Now, imagine doing that exercise, but at the same time not being able to keep track of all these operations in your head and constantly losing focus on the problem.
This is what most of our children with ADHD face when they look at a math problem.
ADHD and math don’t seem to be a “natural” fit, and there are various factors that go into why math is so difficult for kids with ADHD.
So in this post, we’ll break down some of the struggles kids with ADHD face in math class, and some ways to help make sure your child’s math foundation is strong.
ADHD and Math: The issue at hand
Students who are affected by ADHD often have a hard time with math because their memory is not very strong and blocking out external stimuli is a struggle.
Memory, which is where information is stored for later use, is one of many executive functions. Executive functions refer to skills such as reasoning, task switching, and planning. Kids with ADHD do not have strong executive function skills, which significantly affects their performance in school.
Which brings us to our first struggle…
Struggle 1: Word problems are overwhelming
A 25 foot ladder is leaning against a house and a hose is stretched from the base of the house to the garden and passes the ladder after 8 feet and you have to find out how tall the house is and what the angle the ladder makes with the house.
Wait, what just happened?
If you read the problem above and got confused or zoned out, you’re like many people who dread word problems. For students with ADHD, the stumbling block with word problems lies in the combination of words and numbers that make it difficult to store the information in their memory as they progress through the problem.
Even if the student is able to follow along with the problem, when it comes time to solve it, all of their energy and focus is already used up!
The solution to the word problem struggle
Have your student read the problem in small parts and draw a picture of the part he just read. This breaks the word problem into chunks, allowing the student to place just a small piece of information into his head. Adding a tactile and visual dimension to his learning by drawing part of the problem at a time only strengthens his memory.
Check out the image below. It shows what the picture might look like as your child is reading. By the end of reading the word problem, he will have completed the drawing in the bottom right.
Taking this piece by piece approach to reading and drawing might mean that your child might have to change the original drawing as he goes, but that’s okay… it’s important to get something on the page before he finishes reading the whole problem.
Struggle 2: Order of operations are confusing
Remember PEMDAS: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally?
It’s an acronym that stands for Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction and is supposed to help us recall the order of operations in complex math problems.
The struggle that students with ADHD have with math problems that require them to conjure up the correct order of operations has to do with their working memory and ability to maintain focus throughout the multiple problem-solving procedures.
Solution? Make it visual
Have your student highlight math signs and symbols.
Make colored pens, markers, and highlighters your kid’s best friend by encouraging her to colour or highlight the sign, – + = x ÷, of each problem.
ADDitude magazine recommends highlighting math signs because it is a visual reminder to the student of the kind of math operation needed to solve the problem.
It may also be helpful in downtime to allow use of mobile math apps that work on the topic your child is struggling with. These tend to be effective because of the very high level of visual engagement kids have with video games and screen time.
Struggle 3: Staying focused enough to finish the problem
Aside from issues with working memory, issues with focus are why students with ADHD tend to struggle with math problems.
Staying intently focused on a single task takes a ton of mental energy, which often conflicts with the desire that many kids with ADHD have for constantly changing stimulation.
This is why completing a mathematical proof, a complex word problem or a problem involving intricate problem-solving procedures can seem out of reach for your child.
The solution to the focus problem:
Have your child take a focus break. Focus breaks are 2-5 minute breaks when the student steps away from his homework, even if it’s in the middle of a long mathematical problem, and does something unrelated to his work.
This might be spending a few minutes on his phone, playing fetch with the dog, or better yet, a brain exercise to strengthen his focus. Dr. Robert Myers writes about brain exercises that are used to improve executive functions in kids with ADHD.
Does your child struggle with ADHD and math?
An expert subject tutor or executive function coach can help! Schedule a free consultation.