Teaching Mathematics to Special Children

The progression of learning math from the early childhood to the classroom is from finger counting beads to deciphering abstract symbols on page. The moment we became comfortable counting beads with our fingers, we were pushed past to count the trees, passing road signs, guessing the number of beans in a jar without the advantage of using our fingers. The challenge mounts, but we somehow are up to the task and overcome it. Enter school. The objects we playfully manipulated with our fingers are replaced by abstract symbols on the page. And, those have to interact to other abstract symbols to produce arithmetic.

Frustrating as it is, especially more so to those with unique learning difficulties, differences and special needs. Take that frustration and multiply it ten times, perhaps. An average student may somehow learn to manipulate the abstract symbols of math much like he/she did with the manipulation of beads. The child with learning difficulties and special needs faces all kinds of problems learning math.

Three key problems they face on the road to math mastery are: lack of visual demonstration, lack of math retention and lack of whole to part learning.

Lack of Visual Demonstration

Majority of children with special needs are visual learners. Which means they can only process visually presented information. Just writing numbers or symbols on page or black board simply will not cut. They need a visual bridge to crossover and connect with the symbols and their operation on numbers.

This hurdle can be overcome by using real, tangible or virtual manipulatives in the day to day instruction of math permitting the student how it works rather than accepting abstract formulae at face value. By being led to see math in action in their daily lives also benefits them. Building with blocks, cutting play dough into parts and saving money for the toy or treat all help the child see math in action.

Besides manipulatives learning using color is vital for visual learners. Presenting each step in a sequential math problem in a different color greatly helps the visual learner. Finally, making pictures in their minds aids them in memorization. Many are able to memorize the multiplication tables quite easily when they have a picture story to go with it. Multimedia math programs can greatly increase the success in math of these visual learners.

Lack of Math Retention

One of the most common pet peeves of the parents of the children with special needs is their inability to retain math from year to year.

It is normal for these children to learn their addition, subtraction, multiplication and division from scratch after the summer break. Unfortunately, rote drill doesn’t help in the long run. These students need additional strategies based on their learning style.

Visual learners as already seen can memorize when their learning is associated with pictures. Auditory learners – whose learning style is learning by hearing – learn best through rhymes and songs to cement math in their minds. Kinesthetic learners make quick work of math if they engage their bodies. Jumping hopscotch or playing four-square with math written in the boxes is a fun and resistance free way to overcome traditional math memorization.

Lack of Whole to Part Learning

Traditional math involves presenting students with sequential problems and letting them move through the problem in sequential steps. But, children with special needs are not sequential thinkers and therefore struggle to fit in to the mold.

Children with learning difficulties prefer to learn from whole to part. In fact, they have advanced mathematical reasoning capabilities which enable them to reach the answer intuitively for which they are unable to demonstrate in the traditional way. They do better if they understand the motivation behind what they are learning than simply asked to follow the steps. And their frustration peters out when they are not required to show their work.

Such children should be allowed to experiment with math in order to derive pleasure in the abstractions than getting bogged down with morbid calculations.

Parents and teachers who are willing to take extra time and effort to use creative means to present math to children with special needs often find that these children keep pace with other normal children.

Going past the beads in the fingers may be more challenging for some children than others but, with right understanding and strategies any child can succeed at math.

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