Math -- it's something we use every day, many times without even realizing it. When we calculate travel time, figure out correct change, leave a tip for a waiter, budget expenses, measure ingredients for cooking, sort out how much discount we will get on an item during a sale - we are using mathematical skills. For lots of people, however, math doesn't always come easily.
Solving math problems can be an especially frustrating process for many children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Students with ADHD tend to have higher rates of math learning disabilities as compared to the general student population. Even those students with ADHD who do not qualify for a math disability may still have a terrible time with math. Though these challenges may first be seen in the school years, they can certainly continue on and impact math abilities even into adulthood.
Why is Math so Difficult for Those With ADHD?
Mastering math is actually quite a complex process. Break downs in the learning process can occur in several areas including memory, attention, problem solving and organizing -- all areas that can be challenging for students with ADHD.
In the early stages of learning a student must learn about quantities and how they correspond to numbers. The student must also memorize simple math facts, rules, and vocabulary and then be able to recall those learned facts from memory very quickly.
Math is highly cumulative. A student builds on what he or she has learned previously for subsequent learning. A strong foundation in math is necessary as math tasks become more complex. You might think of learning math concepts as similar to the stacking of building blocks -- each underlying block (or math concept) supports those that follow. When the foundation is weak, the whole building process is in jeopardy.
As math tasks become more complex the student must be able to recognize patterns and automatically recall math facts and rules in order to quickly solve steps in the problem. Working memory impairments (common for students with ADHD) can impede a student's ability to do this. Deficits in working memory make it hard for a student to hold information in mind and keep track of that information while performing the multiple steps involved in many math computations.
Chris Dendy, a leading ADHD expert and author, a former teacher with more than 35 years experience working with students with ADHD, is quoted below explaining more about why math can often cause problems for students with ADHD.
"Since learning is relatively easy for most of us, sometimes we forget just how complex seemingly simple tasks really are, for example memorizing multiplication tables or working a math problem. For example, when a student works on a math problem, he must fluidly move back and forth between analytical skills and several levels of memory (working, short-term, and long-term memory). With word problems, he must hold several numbers and questions in mind while he decides how to work a problem. Next he must delve into long-term memory to find the correct math rule to use for the problem. Then he must hold important facts in mind while he applies the rules and shifts information back and forth between working and short-term memory to work the problem and determine the answer."
Learning math requires sustained attention in order to memorize facts and sequence of steps while self-monitoring and checking over answers. This can be difficult for students with ADHD who struggle with focus and can easily lose their way or becoming entangled in multiple elements of a math problem.
Attention issues can also impede on the speed in which a student is able to move through math computations, sort out extraneous information, and follow multi-step procedures. For students with ADHD who tend to have a slower speed of processing it can take a lot of energy just to get through problems and certainly affects math problem solving performance.
In order to accurately solve math problems a student must pay attention to detail, remember and follow directions, and plan through the process in an organized and sequential way. One careless mistake and the computation is off. Impulsive decisions, rushing through problems, even poor fine motor coordination that affects handwriting skills can result in math errors.
Sydney S. Zentall, Ph.D., ADHD and Education: Foundations, Characteristics, Methods, and Collaboration. Pearson - Merill Prentice Hall, 2006.
Chris A. Zeigler Dendy, M.S., "Executive Function...'What Is This Anyway?'": ATTENTION Magazine, February 2008.
Mel Levine, M.D., Educational Care: A System for Understanding and Helping Children with Learning Disabilities at Home and in School. Educators Publishing Service2001.