It All Adds Up 3 Math Strategies for Kids with ADHD

Back in elementary school, when practicing math times tables, you might remember the common “mad minute” exercise. It was a short quiz of about 20 multiplication problems that you had to try and complete in one minute. For most young minds, those 60 seconds were seriously stressful.

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 ADHD children 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 here is a breakdown of some of the struggles ADHD kids face in math class, along with ways to help make sure your child’s math foundation is strong.

Struggle 1:
Word problems are overwhelming

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 the 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. This brings us to the first struggle:

Take this word problem, for example: 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.

Solution: Tackle it piece by piece. 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 example image. 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 OK. It’s important to get something on the page before he finishes reading the whole problem.

Struggle 2: Confusion with order of operations

Remember PEMDAS (Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally)? It’s an acronym that stands for parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition and subtraction. It is supposed to help with recalling 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 him or her to color or highlight the sign (minus, plus, equals, times and divided by) 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.

Solution: Have your child take a focus break. Focus breaks are two- to five-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 the phone, playing fetch with the dog or, better yet, a brain exercise to improve your child’s focus.

By using these strategies, children with ADHD can feel much more confident in their studies and strengthen their math foundation.

For more than nine years, Christine Rosenfeld tutored students from pre-K to college at Educational Connections Tutoring.

3 Brain Exercises for Kids with ADHD

These easy, fun brain exercises provided by child psychologist Dr. Robert Myers can help improve executive function in children with ADHD. Try them out during your child’s focus breaks.

Story-Based Games: To play these games, all you need is a good story and a good imagination. There are two versions of the game that you can try:

Read a short story and give the child a “pop quiz” on the content.

Start off by reading a paragraph or two from a story. Next, ask your child to come up with what he thinks might come next. Provide guidance to keep the content connected to the original story. Then, you can add your take on what happens next after your child says what he thinks happens. If possible, keep trading back and forth and see what you end up with.

This helps with building working memory and concentration. It can also help in the development of logic and sense of humor.

Mazes: You can find mazes appropriate for the age of your child for free online (such as krazydad.com/mazes). Start off with easy ones and move forward. Keep track of speed and errors. Of course, don’t forget to praise improving scores.

This is great for concentration, planning, sequencing, processing speed and visual-motor integration.

Dancing Sequence Games: There are various versions to select from, depending on your child’s age and what he or she likes. These games can be played on various video game platforms, including Xbox 360, Wii and PlayStation 3. You will also need to purchase the dance mat that goes with your system.

These games can improve concentration, processing speed, planning, sequencing and motor integration. Added bonus: They can also be a good form of aerobic exercise.

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