Real Life Math for the LD Child

As an author, I have had innumerable opportunities to talk “math” with many parents of special needs children. We have discussed everything from Johnny’s memorization (here today, gone tomorrow) to finger counting, from ”putting it on paper” (“hate to write”, messy erasures, and number reversals) to directionality confusion (starting on the wrong end of the problem). Regardless of the disability, parents all have one thing in common - their child isn’t succeeding with math, everybody is frustrated, and what should they do.

My advice always begins with the same question -  What skills does your child have right now and what will he need to know by the age of 25? By realistically focusing on where he is and where he needs to be, develop a plan of attack. And step one is - if you aren’t succeeding where you are (see Math Skill Inventory), go back and build some basics.

There are many necessary life skills your child needs without doing ”paper and pencil” activities. These skills which were easy for you may not be easy for Johnny. Take first things first. Whatever your realistic goal for Johnny is, he must first learn to count, read and write numbers. The numbers from 0 to 100 can be an adventure in divergent thinking (see  Mastering Mathematics).

Counting and number recognition (reading the numbers correctly)

Children should be taught initially to count to 10, that zero means nothing, and the numeral 5 means 5 of anything. During this stage, let them count objects, touching or moving each object as they say its number (one to one correspondence). One day you can sort and count beans in 15 bean soup, the next day pennies, then napkins (if there are 6 people in my family and each needs a napkin, I need to put 6 napkins on the table), fingers, M & Ms, Cheerios, popcorn, etc. Then introduce the written numeral and have him hand you this many.  If he’s right, maybe you’ll reward him by letting him eat the answer (M & Ms, popcorn, etc.).

It is a shame that the teen numbers follow 10.  The teen numbers are the only numbers that don’t follow the pattern. The twenties, thirties, etc. all say their name and the 1, 2, 3 etc. in order (twenty-one,twenty-two, etc.). The teens do not have this pattern - they aren’t counted eleven-teen, twelve-teen, thirteen, etc. All numbers other than the teens are read left to right and pronounced that way. The teen numbers are written left to right, but read right to left.  In other words, when looking at 15, the five determines which teen it is, not the one.  This is confusing for special children, to say the least. If you see problems with the teen numbers, teach 1-10, jump to 20-100, and then come back to the teens.  For some children, this unusual approach works.


In counting past 10, your initial goal should be counting and recognizing numbers to 31.  At 31, the child is ready to learn calendars. He will be able to read any date (1-31).  At this point, you can work on days of the week and their order; the concepts of today, tomorrow, yesterday (if today is Tuesday, what will tomorrow be? What do we usually do on (day)? What happened special yesterday?); months of the year and their order; a week is 7 days; looking at a calendar, point out that today is the 26th - what date will it be in 2 more days; use the calendar to count down to a special event (You are going to the circus on the 10th. Today is the 4th. Count down the days by writing 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 in the right date blocks, and put a picture or star on the 10th to indicate that this is the day of the special event.); etc.

Your next intermediate counting goal is 59. At this point, you’re ready for telling time with the microwave (digital time). Looking at skills realistically, telling time with a clock that has hands may not be possible (or necessary). Fortunately, digital watches are popular today and are the best choice for a special needs child. Teach him to look at the number before the colon (:) to know which ”o’clock” it is, reading the time from left to right. Teach that the :00 means “no minutes after”. Show him that 8:05 can be said “eight oh five”, but means “five minutes after (past) eight o’clock”. Don’t worry about “ ‘til”. While it is a nice skill to have, “after” will get him to appointments just fine. If you later want to work on an analog clock (one with hands), teach “o’clocks” and “thirty” first, then the “afters”. Teach counting by 5s to 30 first so they can learn ”after” easier. Again, “ ‘til” is nice, but may be extremely confusing.

You may also emphasize holidays - their dates, history, family traditions, etc.  For example, if it is December, talk about Christmas - how Jesus was born as a baby to save His people from their sins; that we may send cards or decorate a tree; it will be colder and maybe have snow (snow is frozen water; water freezes at 32 degrees; it must be cold to snow or it will melt before it touches the ground and become rain); special songs; etc. They should learn their own birthday (month, day, and year) and think of it as a “special holiday”.

They should also learn their personal schedule.  They go to bed at __; they eat breakfast, lunch or dinner at what time; breakfast is the first meal of the day and happens in the morning; the concepts of morning, noon, night, afternoon, evening, daytime (whether sunny or rainy, daytime is “light” time); the seasons and the weather expected in each; what day(s) do we go to church?


Money is the next important skill a child should be taught.  It isn’t important whether he knows the names of the coins (penny, nickel, etc.).  He must know the coin’s value (one cent, five cents, etc.) and be able to identify it when shown either heads or tails (achievement tests show tails). Initially, work on the coin’s worth/value (which is worth more - 5 cents or 10 cents?).  It may be difficult to explain that the bigger nickel is worth less than the small dime.  It may also be hard to explain that 5 pennies in a stack are worth the same as one nickel.  These simple equivalents are important, however, and should be mastered before the child begins to add coins.

When he/she is ready to add coins, add pennies up to a nickel (5 cents) first.  Then add different combinations of coins up to 10 cents. When this is consistently successful, move to 15¢.  Increase your goal each time by 5¢ increments, up to 25¢. At 25¢, you have reached an important milestone and should see more rapid skill development with the next 25¢. Continue teaching counting change until you reach a dollar (100 cents). Teach “25-50-75-a dollar” in a singsong rhythm.

You may also choose to teach the “least number of coins” concept. While it is nice to hear coins jingle, you don’t want him to carry a ton of change.  “Trade in” 5 pennies for a nickel; 2 nickels for a dime; 2 dimes and a nickel for a quarter; etc.  Now you are teaching the more abstract concept of equivalents.

After he learns these, you may choose to work on: “more than” and “less than”; reading and understanding prices on cans and other items for purchase; learn the cents (¢) and dollar ($) signs and that the same amount is written two different ways (4¢ and $.04); knowing if you have enough money to make a purchase; knowing that if you don’t have the exact amount but have more, you can buy the item and will get change; knowing that the price will always be higher at the checkout because of added tax.

By the time the student has mastered the above concepts, he should be able to transfer this learning to: finding specific pages in books or hymns in a hymnal; know the meaning of first, second, third, last, none, all, some, single, double, couple, triple, etc.; will 39 come before or after 17?; greater (more) than and less than; rounding off to the nearest 10; etc.


Teach thermometers. Make sure they know that most people don’t wear a bathing suit in 40 degree weather (Polar Bear Club?!). Teach them appropriate clothing selections for different temperatures.

Every morning, go to the thermometer , read it and discuss the weather forecast of the night before.  Will you need a sweater, jacket or raincoat? Will short sleeves, long sleeves, or a sweat shirt be right? Let him watch the weather with you. Point out  where you live on the map, watching for the pictures which mean snow and rain. Eventually, let him point to the screen or newspaper’s map and “read” the expected weather.  Work on concepts like: warm and cool, cold and hot, while realizing that these concepts are relative.  By that, I mean that weather is hot at 90 degrees, water is tepid, and a person is dead - a temperature’s meaning changes with the situation.


Face facts. Children with math difficulties won’t use their memorized facts when grown, they’ll use a calculator. And why shouldn’t they? When you balance your check book, don’t you? I do. The math skills you teach now will help Johnny recognize that he punched the wrong numbers into the calculator (that answer couldn’t possibly be right).

The list could go on and on. We take these math skills for granted, but they all must be learned. Enjoy teaching your child where he is and progressing to where he needs to be. Then someday, he may “rise up and call you blessed.”




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