Math & ADHD: Carelessness or Accidental Error?

By Miriam Cherkes-Julkowski, Ph.D.

Children with ADHD typically have trouble with math, which requires sustained attention, good working memory (how much information can be held on tap at one time), tracking (knowing where they are in a problem), and self-monitoring. As students move into higher grades, math performance tends to decline.

Students with ADHD not only make mistakes; the mistake may vary with each reworking, leading teachers to conclude the errors are “careless.”

The problem is not carelessness. It’s due to the lack of sufficient attention resources. To intervene effectively, teachers and parents need to avoid blaming the child.

Tips to Address the Problem

It is helpful for these children to learn basic math facts—addition, subtraction, multiplication tables, etc. Few students with ADHD know their number facts. Most depend on counting up or down from those they know already.

Standard drills and repetitive worksheets aren’t helpful. Interactive instruction (computer games, teacher-led activities, etc.) is likely to be more effective. To make learning fun, adapt board games so that the number of moves is determined by getting the right answer to problems on flash cards.

As math becomes more difficult it becomes more important to provide instruction that helps the child understand and therefore, commit the process to memory. Calculators make getting the right answer easier only when the student understands how to set up the problem and knows how it should be worked.

Two key ingredients make math instruction work for children with ADHD: Setting up a problem that the child really wants to solve, and capitalizing on understanding to reduce the need for sustained attention.

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