Learning Mathematics for Children with Special Needs

Written by F.D.


Mathematics is a fascinating subject that is crucial in applications for our daily lives. However, children with special needs tend to face a number of difficulties in mastering Mathematical skills.

Part 1: Why is learning Mathematics challenging for Children with Special Needs?

There are several factors that can be linked to why children with special needs struggle in learning Mathematics. Firstly, they typically have memory deficits leading to difficulties in grasping Mathematical knowledge. Children might be having difficulties memorizing and fully understanding Mathematical solutions due to the inability to acquire and apply both cognitive and metacognitive strategies. Cognitive strategies involve problem solving or completing tasks like how to buy groceries or helping children to read books step by step. Meanwhile metacognitive learning is reflecting on their thinking process to plan, monitor and change their own learning techniques.

Children with special needs also tend to find generalizing challenging. This refers to the application of the learned skills into their everyday routine. For example, applying addition and subtraction formulas to counting money for their lunch break when they are at school.

Visual-spatial issues can also contribute to the difficulty for children with special needs to learn Mathematics. Children need good vision and sight ability to prevent any confusion and complication in fully understanding the Mathematical formulas. Examples of visual-spatial issues seen are misalignment of numerals in columns for calculation and difficulty with place values involving the base ten system.

Part 2: How to support children with special needs in developing Mathematical skills

Difficulties in learning Mathematics can be encountered in different age groups and in different branches of Mathematics. Thus, intervention should be executed at different points in a child’s life and in different domains. According to a research, a child with special needs has the most difficulty in learning Mathematics during a relatively easy onset.

The interventions can be categorized into different branches of Mathematical skills. The first is developing basic understanding of arithmetics during kindergarten and first grade. During this age, children usually develop number sense which further develops into various Piagetian operations such as number conservation, classification and seriation. These types of skills are usually complemented with various counting skills. As such, arithmetics is the first category of foundational intervention that the parents should look into for their children with special needs. After arithmetics, parents should look into helping their children learn the four basic Mathematical operations - addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Knowledge of these operations and the capacity to perform mental arithmetic is key before moving forward to more advanced Mathematical skills.

Another way to help children with special needs learn Mathematics is using multi-sensory learning. Multi-sensory learning utilizes important senses like smell, taste, touch, hearing and sight to ensure a deep and comprehensive learning experience for children with special needs. For example, using a touch sensory mechanism can be highly effective in helping children understand and absorb the knowledge learnt. Examples of activities utilizing touch sensory include building numbers from playdough, playing with foam or plastic number shapes and solving puzzles involving number shapes.

The next method is to practice the basic number concept which is understanding how many objects are associated with a particular number. Children with special needs usually have a tough time with basic numbers and thus, are unable to advance to more complex Mathematical skills. In order for them to familiarize themselves with basic numerical skills faster, the best way is to use numbers frequently in the classroom or at home. When parents use the numbers in everyday lives, their children will be able to capture the basic number knowledge easier. Parents and teachers can also help by writing out numbers and using physical objects to illustrate the numbers concept.

Games and art can also be a fun way for children to master Mathematical skills. An example of utilizing art is drawing a picture of the child’s family and counting the number of family members. This will help the children to be familiar with how they are able to count and make it a norm for them to learn. Meanwhile, games are a fun way to spice up the process of learning Mathematics. An example of a game that can enhance knowledge in Mathematics can be carried out through a grocery shopping role play where the child learns numbers by counting the number of items in the grocery list. If the children are learning addition and subtraction, this game can be applied similarly by having the children add or subtract items from the grocery cart.

Special needs children may not be able to memorize Mathematical formulas due to learning disabilities. Hence, the invention of specific calculators can play a big part in assisting children with special needs to better comprehend the formulas.


Learning Mathematics may seem like moving a mountain for children with special needs. However, with the right intervention and teaching tools as well as support from parents and teachers, children with special needs can develop great Mathematical skills.


  1. Goldman, S. R. (1989). Strategy instruction in mathematics. Learning Disability Quarterly; 12, 43–55.

  2. Schopman, E. A. M., Van Luit, J. E. H. (1996). Learning and transfer of preparatory arithmetic strategies among young children with a developmental lag. Journal of Cognitive Education; 5, 117–131.

  3. Correa, J., Nunes, T., Bryant, P. (1999). Young children’s understanding of division: The relationship between division terms in a non-computational task. Journal of Educational Psychology; 90, 321–329.

  4. Mercer, C. D., Miller, S. P. (1992). Teaching students with learning problems in math to acquire, understand, and apply basic math facts. Remedial and Special Education; 13(3), 19–35.

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