Understanding Your Child’s Trouble With Math

By Amanda Morin



At a Glance

  • Math difficulty often involves trouble with counting and memorizing facts.
  • A learning issue called dyscalculia is a common source of math trouble.
  • There are many ways to help kids get better at working with numbers.

Do you often wonder why your child has such a hard time learning math? If she has trouble counting or remembering basic math facts, it could be due to a learning issue called dyscalculia. But other issues can also make it hard to work with numbers. Learn more about what might be causing your child’s trouble with math, and how you can help.

What You Might Be Seeing

The signs of a math issue can vary depending on what’s causing it and how old your child is. If  is to blame, the symptoms may change over time as she uses math in different ways.

Math Trouble in Preschool or Kindergarten

  • Finds it hard to learn to count by 10s, up to 100
  • Has trouble pointing to and counting each object in a group
  • Has trouble understanding that a number can be used to describe any group with that amount in it—for example, knowing that 5 can be used for a group of 5 fingers, 5 bananas and 5 cats
  • Has difficulty recognizing and writing numbers up to 20
  • Skips numbers when counting, long after other kids the same age are able to count in order (children typically can count to 100 by 1s and 10s at end of kindergarten)
  • Doesn’t tend to recognize patterns and may not be able to sort items by size, shape or color

Math Trouble in Early Elementary School (Kindergarten Through Second Grade)

  • Difficulty counting by 2s, 5s, and 10s
  • Unable to mentally calculate basic addition and subtraction problems
  • Difficulty recognizing basic mathematical signs such as plus or minus
  • Difficulty recognizing numbers, confusing 381 for 38 and 1 or 3, 8, 1

Math Trouble in Upper Elementary School or Middle School

  • Doesn’t understand the concept of “more than” or “less than”
  • Struggles to learn and remember basic math facts, such as 5 + 5 = 10
  • Doesn’t make the connection between related math facts or “fact families,” such as 5 + 5 = 10, so 10 ‒ 5 = 5
  • Has trouble recognizing written numbers (also known as numerals)
  • Still uses fingers to count instead of doing the calculation in her head
  • Struggles to line numerals up neatly in columns when solving math problems
  • Doesn’t know left from right
  • Avoids games that involve strategy like checkers or Sudoku
  • Has a hard time telling time

Math Trouble in High School

  • Has difficulty using math in real life, including things like budgeting or doubling a recipe to make it for more people
  • Has trouble understanding maps and charts
  • Hesitates to participate in activities that require a good sense of speed and distance, such as running track or learning to drive

If you’ve seen some of these signs in your child for at least six months, it’s a good idea to talk to her teacher or doctor. Together you can come up with a plan for figuring out what’s causing these problems and what may help.

“You may not know exactly what’s causing your child’s trouble with math. But even before you find out, there are steps you can take now to make things a little easier for your child.”

What Can Cause Trouble With Math

For someone to do math well, many skills need to come together. These include language and memory skills, and the ability to picture things. If your child is doing fine in other subject areas and mainly seems to be struggling with math, then dyscalculia may be the cause of her issues. Here are some common causes of math trouble.

Dyscalculia: This brain-based condition makes it hard to work with numbers and number concepts. It may not be as well known as dyslexia, but it isn’t uncommon. Research suggests that anywhere from 7 to 14 percent of people have it.

Dyscalculia isn’t a sign of low intelligence. In fact people with this condition often do well or even extremely well in non-math areas.

Not all kids show the same signs of dyscalculia. Some may have a hard time learning to count or figuring out how many items are in a group. Others might struggle to remember math facts or use math-related vocabulary like “greater than” or “less than.”

: This common condition is mainly known for its impact on reading skills. But it can also affect spelling, writing, speaking and math skills. If your child is having trouble learning to count and doing word problems, dyslexia could be the cause. Many kids have both dyslexia and dyscalculia.

Math anxiety: Children with math anxiety are so worried about doing math that it lowers their performance on math tests. Some kids may have both math anxiety and dyscalculia.

Visual processing disorder: You may see your child struggling to recognize patterns, line up math problems on the page and read maps or charts. These are all signs of a visual processing disorder.

: Not paying attention to math isn’t the same as not understanding it. If your child can’t seem to focus on her math work, or makes a lot of careless errors, you might want to look into ADHD.

How You Can Get Answers

If your child is having trouble with math, there’s a lot you can do to help. By knowing what’s causing the issues, you and her teachers can find the most effective ways to build math skills and self-esteem. Getting answers make take a little work, but it’s not as tough as you may think. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Talk to your child’s teacher. This is a great first step toward finding out why your child is struggling with math. See what the teacher has observed in class and share what you’ve been seeing at home. You can ask the teacher for a list of the skills that students are expected to learn by the end of the school year. That can give you a sense of what your child needs help with and how far behind she may be. The teacher may try different strategies to help your child build math skills and understand concepts. You also can talk about whether your child might be eligible for a 504 plan. That plan would put some official strategies and accommodations into place.
  • Look into an educational evaluation. Either you or your child’s teacher can request that the school evaluate your child for special supports or services. (The school can’t do it without your permission.) If the school agrees, you won’t have to pay anything. Depending on the results your child might be entitled to an Individualized Education Program (). This plan will detail the free services and supports the school will provide to help your child learn math.
  • Talk to your child’s doctor. This is another good place to start getting answers. The doctor will ask you to describe your concerns and help you find out whether certain medical conditions such as ADHD might be causing the issues. The doctor may also suggest you see a learning specialist to help figure things out.
  • Talk to a specialist. The professionals who focus on learning issues are called educational psychologists. They are trained to give specific tests that look at how children think and learn. These tests can help pinpoint which areas a child is struggling with. The specialists who can check for ADHD are a psychologist or neurologist.

What You Can Do Now

You may not know exactly what’s causing your child’s trouble with math. But even before you find out, there are steps you can take now to make things a little easier for your child. Here are a few options to consider:

  • Make math a game. Practicing math skills doesn’t have to feel like homework. Doing it in a less pressured way may improve your child’s understanding of numbers and reduce math anxiety. Ask your child to help you sort the laundry and pair up the socks. Or have her measure out ingredients to cook with or weigh things at the grocery store. Learn more about how games can help kids who struggle with math.
  • Check out apps and technology. Kids who have trouble with math facts and concepts can benefit from apps that boost math skills. Other types of can help too. Using things like calculators may feel like “cheating.” But if it’s what your child needs to be able to manage the workload, it’s simply another learning aid.
  • Boost your child’s confidence. Struggling with math can affect your child’s overall self-esteem and social life. Help your child recognize her strengths and build on them. Reminding her of what she does well can help improve her self-esteem and resilience.
  • Observe and take notes. The first step to finding help for your child is to observe her behavior and take notes on when she has difficulties. This can help you pick up on patterns and specific issues that you can begin to work on. Your notes will also be helpful when you talk to your child’s teacher, doctor or other professional.
  • Try different strategies. There are things you can do at home to help your child build math skills. You may also want check out some of the advice from our experts in Parenting Coach. Get suggestions for helping your child with things like poor self-esteem and anxiety problems.
  • Connect with other parents. Although it may feel like you’re the only family dealing with these issues, you’re not. This site can help you find parents whose kids are struggling with math. These parents know what you’re going through and can share insights and strategies.

Understanding what’s behind your child’s trouble with math is the best way to get support for her—and for you. The more you know, they better able you’ll be to help her build her math skills and her confidence.


Key Takeaways

  • Dyscalculia is not a sign of low intelligence.
  • Speaking with professionals can help you get answers and find the most effective solutions.
  • Math trouble can affect self-esteem, but there are many ways you can focus on your child’s strengths and boost confidence.

About the Author

Amanda Morin is a parent advocate, a former teacher and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.


How to Help Kids With Working Memory Issues by Rae Jacobson

Parents Guide to ADHD Medications by Child Mind Institute

The Most Common Misdiagnoses in Children by Linda Spiro, PsyD

How to Spot Dyscalculia by Rae Jacobson

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Basics   by Child Mind Institute

How to Help Anxious Kids in Social Situations by Katherine Martinelli

Anxiety in the Classroom by Rachel Ehmke

The Benefits Of Unsupervised Play Will Make You Want To Back Off Your Kids' Activities In A Big Wayby Katie McPherson

How to Avoid Passing Anxiety on to Your Kids by Brigit Katz

3 Defining Features of ADHD That Everyone Overlooks by  William Dodson, M.D.

Should emotions be taught in schools? by Grace Rubenstein

Reviewed by

Whitney Hollins is a special education teacher and adjunct instructor at Hunter College.