Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.
Learning Disabilities and Problem-Solving
Dana is a sixth grade math and science teacher at a diverse and dynamic middle school. This year, in accordance with the Common Core State Standards, she is determined to focus more on teaching her students mathematical processes, or how to think about and solve problems, rather than simply procedures and algorithms. As Dana revamps her approach to math instruction, she notices that her students with diagnosed learning disabilities seem to be struggling to keep up.
Dana understands that learning disabilities are cognitive or developmental disparities between a student's overall intelligence and his or her ability to learn and process new information in one or more subjects. Though learning disabilities are often thought of in terms of their impact on literacy and sometimes basic numeracy, Dana is starting to notice that they also affect students' ability to engage in problem-solving work in mathematics. She decides to find out more about why this is the case and what she can do to help.
Why Problem-Solving Can Be Hard
Dana quickly comes to understand that no two students with learning disabilities are alike, and there are many different reasons they might struggle with problem-solving. Pinpointing where the breakdown is can be an important step in helping them. Dana discovers some of the common reasons problem-solving can be difficult.
Many students with learning disabilities struggle with reading and also the processing, or deep sense-making, of language. These students may struggle with problem-solving because they have a hard time understanding the problem in the first place. Especially for problems composed of difficult vocabulary, convoluted sentences, or dense language overall, these students may require extra support.
Other students with learning disabilities struggle in the area of executive function, the organization and synthesis of information and ideas. Even if these students understand the language of a problem, they may have a hard time figuring out how to approach it and how to keep their thinking organized on the page. They also may solve one step to a problem but lose track of further steps.
Visual and Spatial Reasoning
Sometimes, students with learning disabilities have specific struggles with visualizing mathematical information. For these students, organizing their approach to a problem may not be hard, but actually figuring out the solution can present a major challenge as they struggle to symbolize the numbers and situations in the problem.
Finally, Dana already knows that many students with learning disabilities have a hard time doing accurate computational work. These students may have strong approaches to a problem, but they can still break down when it comes to actually working with the numbers involved.
How to Help
Now that Dana has a sense of where students with learning disabilities can encounter challenges, she endeavors to find some strategies for supporting them:
- Pinpointing the area of breakdown helps Dana understand exactly how to group and support her students.
- Ensuring that the language in story problems is as simple as possible helps students with language-level difficulties.
- Teaching students to read the problem twice and then restate the question they are trying to answer in their own words can also help with the language aspect.
- Dana teaches all of her students to circle the numbers in the story problem and write down the operation or operations they think they need to use.
- Students with executive function challenges benefit from using graphic organizers, or visual templates that help them organize their approach to solving problems.
- When executive function is the issue, Dana sometimes gives her students multi-step problems in levels, allowing them to solve the first step before she layers the second step on.
- For students with visual and spatial challenges, Dana encourages drawing pictures and working with manipulatives and other concrete representational tools.
- When computation is the issue, Dana sometimes allows the use of a calculator.
- Dana also gives some students with computational difficulties the same problem but with smaller numbers, so that they get the conceptual problem-solving practice but not get bogged down in procedures.
Many students with learning disabilities have a hard time processing story problems in the context of mathematics. When you know where these students are having difficulties, you are better positioned to help them. Some common breakdowns include language struggles, executive function difficulties, issues with visual and spatial recognition, and computation challenges. You can offer students a variety of different strategies and supports that will help them gradually learn to approach problem-solving independently, regardless of their struggles.
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