Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Learning Disabilities and the Math Student

Many of our students who use our math software and tutoring approach us tentatively by saying after the first or second session
with us that they have been diagnosed with a specific learning disability. Some of
them express this to us in a matter-of-fact way and others tell us that -because of their
diagnosis, usually by a physician or a psychologist – they expect us to use tried and true
methods to “reach” them in their disabled state.

Although there are various schools of thought on this issue as well as whole schools
devoted to working with students based on a physiologically or emotionally based
diagnosis, we deal with our students in a multi-sensory environment. Our tutoring
apparatus uses whiteboard technology, which engages the student’s senses in a concerted manner. Students may write on the whiteboard in a variety of colors and strokes. They may speak and hear through headsets at the same time.

This multi-sensory learning enables students of diverse strengths and weaknesses to
experience a powerful tool. Traditional classroom learning requires that students be
quiet and not move while learning large bodies of patterns such as multiplication tables.
Children learn geometric shapes and conceptual patterns and spatial relationships almost
entirely without movement. Using manipulative tools is not uniform and it is often
limited to non-instructional time.

Although much time and money has been spent researching learning disabilities in the
area of language, little conclusive research is available in the area of general math skills.
Math tests require a variety of conceptual and cognitive skills and no single test can
pinpoint a deficit which can be alleviated through a specific intervention or technique.

It is our feeling that using diagnoses to approach working with a person who has
difficulty in math is counterproductive. Mathematics is a rubric which covers many
diverse skills and abilities, form language to organization to sequencing to classification
and beyond. Some of our students approach us in the hope that when they divulge their
diagnosis we will know exactly how to help them. However, even with established
research in other areas of diagnosed disabilities there is much which can only be learned
in the practical here-and-now of working with the individual student.

The vast majority of our students with problems are those who find it hard to remember
patterns. This impedes their ability to learn the algorithms of multiplication and division.
These students often find it hard to recall multiplication tables. Some of them are so
motivated that they devise their own methods of remembering these factoids and patterns.

We can help many students with difficulties in math – also called “dyscalculia,” a vague
but clinical-sounding name for difficulties in the general area of mathematical skills –
with our multi-sensory approach. Here are a few profiles of students we have worked
with, disguised to conceal any identities.

Kate was in the sixth grade and doing D work in math. She was unable to retain from

day to day the steps necessary to do long division. Sequential instructions confused her
when given verbally. She had difficulties in determining which quantities were larger
than others and which could be divided by others. We worked with her and with her
grandmother, devising manipulatives to be used at home, such as nesting mixing bowls.
Kate also used color schemes in our five-color writing tablet to mark patterns in the
division algorithm. We contacted her teacher and discussed her performance in order
to improve both her grades and her understanding of math principles. Although she
couldn’t take the pre-algebra class with half the rest of her class, Kate improved enough
to pass respectably.

David, a high-functioning autistic child of 12, did not want to concentrate on learning
new computational skills. He was reluctant to solve problems except as they related to
money – and even then he had difficulty in applying the same principles week after week.
He would often ask for addition problems when he was fully capable of doing more
complex work. David did love to draw and we worked with him weaving his creative
drawing into the math tutoring to make him feel more comfortable. Eventually, his
discomfort in math was displaced by the comfort of the whiteboard environment and we
achieved moderate success with him.

Diagnosis implies a scientific approach to problems. It often is not. Sometimes the
solution lies in rolling up one’s sleeves and doing what intuitively feels right. This is
what we do and we are pleased to say that it works.

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