How Various Learning and Attention Issues Can Cause Trouble With Math

By Kate Kelly



At a Glance

  • Issues like ADHD and dyslexia can cause trouble with different aspects of math.
  • These difficulties may look similar on the surface. But they may need different kinds of strategies and supports.
  • Finding out what’s causing your child’s struggles with math can help you find the right strategies.

Different learning and attention issues can cause trouble with different aspects of math. These difficulties can look similar on the surface. But they may require different strategies and supports.

It’s also important to keep in mind that many kids have more than one learning or attention issue. If your child has co-occurring issues, each one needs to be addressed. Use this guide to learn possible causes of your child’s math challenges and strategies to try for each.

How Dyscalculia Can Affect Math

What it is: Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability in math. Kids with this learning issue have trouble with many aspects of math.

The math connection: Trouble with number sense can make it hard to understand what numbers mean or how to use numbers flexibly and fluidly to solve problems. This can also make it hard to compare quantities or concepts like biggest vs. smallest.

Some kids with dyscalculia may understand the logic behind math. But they struggle with how or when to apply what they know.

Specific difficulties: Kids with dyscalculia may have trouble recalling basic math facts, like 2 + 4 = 6. They may struggle to recognize patterns and sort items by size, shape and color. They may also have a hard time reading clocks, graphs or other visual representations of math concepts. See a list of more signs of dyscalculia.

Strategies to try: Boost your child’s number sense through fun activities that use math—like baking. Use other multisensory techniques for teaching math to help make abstract concepts more concrete. And explore softwareapps and Chrome tools that can help with math.

How Dyslexia Can Affect Math

What it is: Dyslexia is a specific learning disability in reading. Kids with dyslexia have trouble reading accurately and fluently. They may also have trouble with reading comprehension, spelling, writing and math.

The math connection: Doing math often involves working with written and spoken information. Not being able to identify or process key words makes it hard to know how to solve math problems. Kids with dyslexia may have trouble translating key math terms and phrases into number sentences.

Specific difficulties: Difficulty  can make it hard to understand and solve word problems. Many number words like “eight” have irregular spelling patterns, which can be hard to decode. And word problems often use people’s names, which can be hard to decode too.

Some kids with dyslexia may reverse letters and numbers. This isn’t a problem with vision. It happens because struggling readers aren’t sure how to position symbols in space, like on a piece of paper. Poor memory can also lead to transposing or switching the order of the numbers. See a list of more signs of dyslexia.

Strategies to try: Read directions and word problems out loud to your child and review key terms before starting an assignment. Encourage your child to talk through word problems. You can also reason out loud what the problem is asking for, then have your child say the equation or number sentence before writing it out.

How ADHD Can Affect Math

What it is: ADHD is a common disorder involving a key group of skills called executive functions. It impacts the ability to do things like focus, use  and get started on tasks.

The math connection: Trouble paying attention can cause kids to make math mistakes. Kids with ADHD may have trouble recalling and/or using math rules and formulas. They may also have trouble following the series of steps needed to solve math problems.

Specific difficulties: Kids with ADHD may not complete math problems because they can’t remember all the steps. They may give up before they get to the last step. They may also impulsively rush through math problems without checking for accuracy. Explore moresigns of ADHD.

Strategies to try: Review the times tables and other math facts often. Ask your child to read through a word problem once and then circle the important pieces of the problem while reading it again. Highlight different operations in different colors.

You may want to ask the teacher for notes that outline every step required to complete math problems. You can also use graphic organizers for math that can help kids show their work when solving multi-step problems.

How Visual Processing Issues Can Affect Math

What it is: Visual processing issues involve trouble making sense of information taken in through the eyes. These issues are not the same thing as vision problems. They can’t be corrected with glasses.

The math connection: There are different kinds of visual processing issues. Each can make math a challenge. For example, visual discrimination issues make it hard to tell the difference between letters or numbers that look alike. Visual sequencing issues make it hard to tell the order of numbers and images.

Specific difficulties: Kids may confuse similar-looking symbols and numbers. They may use the wrong ones or in the wrong order. They may have trouble lining up columns of numbers. They may also struggle to recognize patterns or make sense of graphs or charts. Learn more about what visual processing issues can look like.

Strategies to try: Boost discrimination skills by pointing out differences, such as “the circle is at the bottom of the 6 and at the top of the 9.” Reduce visual clutter by using blank sheets of paper to cover the “busy” parts of worksheets. This could help your child focus on one problem at a time. You can also have your child use graph paper to line up number columns.

How Dysgraphia and Dyspraxia Can Affect Math

What they are: Dysgraphia is a specific learning disability in writing. It can impact different aspects of written expression including organizing what you want to say. Dyspraxia affects motor skills. You may also hear it referred to as developmental coordination disorder. Although there are differences between dyspraxia and dysgraphia, both can affect handwriting.

The math connection: Kids with either or both of these issues may have slow and messy handwriting. This can affect their ability to write numbers and letters.

Specific difficulties: Kids with these issues may have trouble grasping a pencil correctly. They may have a hard time lining up numbers. They may also have difficulty writing sentences that explain their math reasoning. These difficulties can cause math work to be slow and labored, but they don’t directly affect the understanding of math concepts.

Strategies to try: Use large-square graph paper to line up numbers in math problems. Another way to help work in columns is to turn lined notebook paper sideways. Free apps like ModMath can also help math students who struggle with writing. Increasing the size of coordinate grids or using online graphing tools can help with math in middle school and high school.

How Nonverbal Learning Disabilities Can Affect Math

What it is: Nonverbal learning disabilities (NVLD) involve trouble with skills that aren’t verbal. Visual-spatial perception is a key issue with NVLD. It affects math skills. It also affects social skills like making sense of body language and other nonverbal cues.

The math connection: Social and spatial issues can make it hard to recognize patterns or relationships between things. This includes trouble with generalizing. Kids with NVLD might not see what’s similar about a set of math problems.

Specific difficulties: Working with fractions and geometric shapes can be especially hard for kids with NVLD. Word problems can also be a big challenge. Kids with NVLD may have the math skills they need but struggle to apply them in novel problem-solving situations.

Strategies to try: Fill out a sample problem at the top of your child’s worksheet. Get your child to describe all the steps needed to solve the problem. Talk about how the next problem is similar and how it’s different. Remind your child of strategies used to solve similar problems.

A Note About Math Anxiety

Anxiety isn’t a learning or attention issue. But it often co-occurs with these issues, and it can definitely cause trouble with math. Kids with math anxiety can get so worried about doing math that it lowers their performance on math tests.

Learn the difference between math anxiety and dyscalculia and read about the different strategies one college student uses to help with dyscalculia and anxiety.

Ready for more information? See the different ways kids with learning and attention issues can get tripped up by the same math problem. Watch an expert explain how to help your child with tricky math homework. And learn how an evaluation can help you find the right supports for your child.

Key Takeaways

  • Dyscalculia can make it hard to make sense of numbers and math concepts.
  • Kids with dyslexia, ADHD and other issues can get tripped up by math problems in different ways.
  • Kids with math anxiety can get so worried about doing math that it lowers their performance on math tests.

About the Author

Portrait of Kate Kelly

Kate Kelly has been writing and editing for more than 20 years, with a focus on parenting.


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Parents Guide to ADHD Medications by Child Mind Institute

The Most Common Misdiagnoses in Children by Linda Spiro, PsyD

How to Spot Dyscalculia by Rae Jacobson

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Basics   by Child Mind Institute

How to Help Anxious Kids in Social Situations by Katherine Martinelli

Anxiety in the Classroom by Rachel Ehmke

The Benefits Of Unsupervised Play Will Make You Want To Back Off Your Kids' Activities In A Big Wayby Katie McPherson

How to Avoid Passing Anxiety on to Your Kids by Brigit Katz

3 Defining Features of ADHD That Everyone Overlooks by  William Dodson, M.D.

Should emotions be taught in schools? by Grace Rubenstein

Reviewed by

Portrait of Brendan Hodnett

Brendan R. Hodnett, M.A.T., is a special education teacher in Middletown, New Jersey.