Are Math Struggles Due to Poor Instruction or Real Learning Disabilities?

In a way, it's sort of the 'chicken or the egg' question: do learning disabilities lead to a greater struggle in math class or does poor instruction lead to deficits that result in a learning disability? Of course good instruction plays an integral part in learning math. Could better teaching help your child if he or she is currently struggling in this subject and is labeled as having a learning disability?

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Preparing to Learn

As defined by The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, a learning disability is 'a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations...'

The National Association of School Psychologists cites several reasons why students might have problems in school, including lack of preschool attendance that might require them to need more time to learn concepts used in lower grades.

One could infer from this that it would be important for children to get proper instruction starting at a young age so they will not be potentially disadvantaged and be at greater risk to develop learning disabilities as they advance to upper grades.

This is not to say, however, that some students do not have a real learning disability that is not influenced by lack of instruction. Some physical or mental health-related conditions could certainly interfere with learning. But in some cases it seems that learning disabilities could be avoided through proper intervention and instruction.

Lack of Instruction Is a Learning Disability

In 2001, a published paper addressing the problem of students not learning to read found that many of these students were often not receiving adequate instruction. To some degree, this lack of instruction was the very reason they had a learning disability!

In other words, not all students with learning disabilities enter school already afflicted with the disorder; rather, the disability forms as students fall further and further behind and struggle to keep up academically. If these students are not getting adequate instruction but advance from one grade to another and the work gets harder while their needs are not met, these struggles will be compounded.

Are these students doomed to fail? Not necessarily. Studies show that up to half of students with learning disabilities improve in math with better instruction.

Response to Intervention

An important method in combating possible learning disabilities in math (or any subject, for that matter) is Response to Intervention (RTI). As the name implies, this method is designed to help both teachers and parents recognize signs of early learning difficulties and to intervene appropriately.

Research shows that early intervention could prevent future struggles. For instance, students who lack automatic recall skills or math fluency, which is considered vital to learning the subject in later years, could be aided by early identification and intervention.

RTI Action Network outlines components of 'effective mathematics instruction' that must be utilized in an intervention program to help students who might develop difficulties later. Thus, it seems that it all falls back to the quality of instruction a student receives when it comes to learning math.

So if you think your student is just being 'dumb' or 'lazy' when it comes to math, you might want to look at the instruction they're getting before you come to this type of conclusion. Doing so might help prevent a potential learning disability further down the road.

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