There is a lot that we do not know or fully understand about mathematics learning disabilities. Within academic research and professional practice, you will find multiple definitions and explanations of what makes up a math learning disability, some of which conflict. As an educational psychologist and mathematics learning specialist, I have worked closely with students to assess, diagnose, and remediate mathematics learning disabilities given the current state of the field and what I know to be true about learning disabilities and how kids learn math. Based on research, theory, and my own professional training and work with individual students, here is what I have come to know about students with mathematics learning disabilities:
Students with math learning disabilities often lack automaticity of basic math facts that makes it harder for them to do more complicated math.
Students with math learning disabilities almost always have brain-based difficulties processing visual information, which makes it harder for them to “see,” remember, and “do” math as other students do.
Students with math learning disabilities often have strong language and verbal reasoning skills and may excel in other academic subjects, which may make their difficulties in math look like a lack of effort rather than a brain-based difficulty.
Students with math learning disabilities make mistakes that look like “careless errors” that can easily be corrected, when instead they are a manifestation of the disability and represent a significant area of difficulty.
Students with math learning disabilities tend to have difficulty thinking flexibly about math problems, and may struggle to know what to do when they are taught multiple ways to solve a problem.
Students with math learning disabilities may demonstrate mastery of math concepts or skills in isolation with repeated practice, but will often have difficulty using and applying concepts, facts, and procedures when the problems are out of context or are more complex.
Students with math learning disabilities tend to spend and exert more time, focus, and effort to learn or do the same amount of math as other students.
Students with math learning disabilities have to exert more brain power in order to do the same math as other students, and can very quickly “max out” their cognitive load and become overwhelmed.
Students with math learning disabilities may get good math test scores and grades that suggest they are doing just fine in class, when really, they are often working extremely hard and sometimes at a pace that is excessive and unsustainable in order to achieve and learn.
Students with math learning disabilities often experience distressing emotions about their math learning experiences, including sadness, anxiety, fear, confusion, anger, frustration, despair, embarrassment, and lack of self-confidence.