Teaching Math to Students with Learning Disabilities

The little boy sits, slumped over in his chair.  Slowly he moves, shifting into a crouching position, as if physically pained by the day’s math lesson.  He stares blankly at the rows of untouched numbers on the paper before him, as a look of vague dismay creeps over his face.  He looks around the classroom hesitantly, as if afraid to ask questions.  Perhaps it is because they are the same questions he’s asked before, and he is embarrassed.  Or perhaps he doesn’t even know what to ask.

I am observing a classroom of special education students at Sierra View Elementary.  The date is Thursday, June the 2nd, and it is the afternoon.  A quiet buzz of excitement, left over from their recent lunch break, simmers around his fellow classmates, but my boy – the one I am observing – doesn’t seem to notice.  He is deep in thought, trying his best to remember whatever rules and guidelines he needs to remember in order to solve these daunting math problems.  The end of his pencil touches his lips as he stares off into space beyond the ceiling.  His eyes become unfocused, as if losing concentration.  They are focusing on something else.  Maybe a waving cobweb, or a crack in the ceiling.  Nonetheless, he stays that way until the gaunt, tired-looking aide comes over to touch his shoulder.

The boy is 10 years old, and should be in fourth grade, preparing to move into fifth.  Instead, he is enrolled in a third-grade special needs class, paired with other students of roughly the same mental conditions.  Because he is in a third grade class, I used the California

requirements specific for the third-grade level.  The criteria for the math standard I observed are as follows:

“2.0 Students calculate and solve problems involving addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division:

2.1 Find the sum or difference between two whole numbers between 0 and 10,000.”

The math he is doing is whole numbers, and they are double-digit.  It is through sheer repetition that his need are being met.  Also, he is able to identify numbers to 10,000, which is required in section 1.1 of the “number sense” standards.  Other than this, I had a difficult time seeing how his specific needs were being met at all.

As I steal a closer look at his paper, I notice row upon row of easy, double-digit addition – a task that, according to the California State standards, should have been learned by the end of first grade.  What’s more is that the problems numbers were low enough to not have any “carry-overs”, and are made up of pairs of questions that are similar, just inverted (example: 42+31,

31+42, etc. . .).

Obviously, some part of his instruction needs to be modified.  I notice that he is still adding with his fingers, or using “counting blocks” to help him add.  One way to move him past this is through memorization, perhaps with flash cards of simple to moderately difficult addition problems.  Another idea could be to teach him an “addition song” to help aid his memory. Also, some type of visual stimuli could be introduced into his study.  Drawings, or colorful pictures instead of cold rows of stale numbers.  I have a feeling, based on my observations of his short attention span, that this too would be a powerful instructional aid.