Teaching Math to Students with LD and ADHD: Interview with Adena Young, Ph.D.


Earlier this year, our local group of educational therapists hosted Dr. Adena Young. Dr. Young is a school and educational psychologist with a private practice in Oakland, California. She works one-on-one with students, provides neuropsychological evaluations, and consults with teachers and schools.

Adena Young - headshot

Dr. Young spoke compellingly about how to support children who are struggling with problems common in learning math. Her two-hour presentation just flew by. So I knew I had to interview her for Bay Tree Blog.

Dr. Young and I sat down earlier this summer to talk about math. I’ve synthesized our interview, which is full of take-home, practical suggestions. I’ve paraphrased in some places for brevity and clarity, and you’ll find her direct quotations in quotation marks. The photos, captions, and formatting were all added by me.

Why is prior knowledge so important to address when working with kids with math difficulties?

According to Dr. Young, limited prior knowledge is often the “culprit” behind math problems.

She says, “I want to look at [the students’] math history and their past experiences. The tricky thing about math is that it builds on itself. In order to be successful as a fifth grade math student, it’s really important that fourth grade made sense.”

Limited prior knowledge is also the easiest thing to fix when addressing math challenges, Dr. Young shared. “You just go back in and reteach in ways that work for [the student]. This often can’t happen in the classroom.” Options, she mentioned, include working with a teacher after school or at lunch, receiving pull-out instruction, or hiring a tutor.

For other students, she talks about the need to address misconceptions. Often, kids partially learned how to do something without gaining an actual understanding of the concept or process. “Misconceptions need to be re-explained and cleared up, and that’s developmentally appropriate,” she adds.

How do you support students with math anxiety?

When it comes to math anxiety, Dr. Young says, “The first step is to create a safe place for that kid.” She always encourages teachers to build rapport with students, “so that students feel safe with you and supported by you.”

She suggests getting to know students in two ways:

  1. You want to get to know the students personally.
  2. You also want to get to know the students mathematically. How does their brain work? What’s easy for them? What’s hard for them? So much changes as soon as kids realize that their teacher is someone who understands their challenges. It’s a huge relief to kids when they know that you understand their difficulties.

She tries to normalize their challenges. She might tell them, “I know a lot of other kids who have a hard time in math. It’s not a cause for alarm, and it’s something I’m going to support you with.”

Often when we decrease stigma, she shares, math problems “become a challenge that can be addressed.” Some students aren’t so overwhelmed and we can create a path forward. Some people find that after the first session or two the anxiety decreases or even disappears.

What do you recommend to parents who notice their children being hard on themselves?

Dr. Young says that parents can learn to send the message that, “All kids can learn math. We just need to figure out how you learn best.”

“It can be very helpful for adults to become aware of their own beliefs and attitudes about math and [to reflect] on their own past experiences with math,” she says.

How do you help the kids who approach math impulsively or who race through their work?

Dr. Young has found that students work impulsively “sacrifice accuracy [for] speed. In the process, they make a lot of mistakes.” She adds, “It’s not just about going slower.” The goal is to get students engaged in the thinking process. They need to take time to think and monitor themselves.

Teaching Math to Students with LD and ADHD: Interview with Adena Young, Ph.D.| BayTreeBlog.com
Students who work impulsively may need physical cues to slow down and think.

Here are some of her suggestions about what you can do to help:

  • Be patient! Dr. Young advises that, “Teachers and educational therapists be patient,” since self-regulation skills take a long time to develop. “Try not to be frustrated the next time [a student works] impulsively.”
  • Create thinking time. Dr. Young shares, “Sometimes, I will actually have students put their pencil down, [so they can think first].”
  • Build self-awareness. “I like to make kids aware of what’s going on. [I might say things such as], “‘I’ve noticed that sometimes you answer the problem before your brain has had enough time to think. I’m wondering if your brain needs more time to think before you respond.'”
  • Emphasize lingering with the process. She’ll even say things like, “I don’t care about the answer. I don’t care about you writing this down. Let’s just think about it.”
  • Promote self-monitoring. She encourages adults to help kids monitor their thinking and responses. “This can be taught and scaffolded over time. As a kid is doing a problem, [you can ask questions like], ‘Are you sure?'”

Kids who work impulsively also sometimes have difficulties with focus. How do you support sustained attention in math?

First off, she suggests giving, “Common accommodations that you would give to any [student] with attention difficulties.” Those are:

  • Work in a quiet space.
  • Minimize distractions.
  • Require sustained attention in small periods of time combined with breaks. You can encourage students to stand up, move around, get a glass of water, and then go back to work.

In terms of specific accommodations while students are doing math, she recommends:

  • Encourage students to say things aloud while they work. “This works for kids who are more verbal and able to stay more engaged if they’re talking.”
  • Encourage students to write in order to stay engaged. This supports kids with strong visual attention skills.
  • Help the student monitor attention. You can even ask, “I want you to let me know when you start feeling like other stuff is popping into your head.” We want students to start developing that self-awareness.

You’ve found that many students with math difficulties have challenges with visual processing. What are ways to support students with visual processing difficulties?

“Visual processing is an umbrella term that refers to kids whose brains have difficulty processing what they see. This breaks down into a lot of smaller categories.”

“A big [area] is visual memory – being able to remember what you see. There is no one single profile for this.”

“[Visual memory problems] come out in a couple of different ways.” One way you’ll see this, according to Dr. Young, is with difficulties copying down notes and remembering information from the white board in class. Kids with visual memory difficulties will usually take longer to write things down from the board and often cannot remember what they’ve seen once the board is erased.

Teaching Math to Students with LD and ADHD: Interview with Adena Young, Ph.D.| BayTreeBlog.com
Students with visual memory challenges may struggle to efficiently copy from the board and remember what they saw.

“There are some basic accommodations for the classroom.” Of course, she adds, accommodations that work will vary among students and teachers.

  • Some teachers give students a “hard copy of the material, so that the students have it in front of them and they don’t have to take notes.”
  • Some teachers just leave the information up on the board longer.
  • Some teachers will even take a picture of everything on the board, so that it “becomes a class resource that everyone can use.”
  • “Some kids will take a phone or an iPad to take a picture of what’s going on.” Some kids enjoy this; others really don’t want to stand out.

Dr. Young shared that a child with visual memory difficulties may also have a harder time “recognizing common math problems.” They may have difficulty solving a problem because they don’t recognize it. To address this difficulty, Dr. Young recommends helping “students develop schemas to name [the concepts they’re working on].” Most students that she works with who have weaker visual memory skills often have stronger verbal skills. “We bring in the words to name what they’re seeing” she says. For example, if they’re looking at a problem, she’ll label this, “This is addition of fractions.”

Word problems are one of the most common math challenges. Why are they so tricky? What can be done?

Dr. Young has found that one thing that makes word problems hard is that many students have decided that word problems are a different beast, so the word problems “must” be hard! “You get a lot of beliefs and anxieties that come in and then kids freeze up,” she says. First off, she recommends you can say things like,

“This is something you can do.
This is something that can be accessible to you.
I just need to teach you how.”

There are lots of teaching strategies for traditional word problems, Dr. Young shares. Traditional word problems take the math content and put context around the math content in order to create a story. One recommendation is to use explicit, systematic instruction to teach students how to recognize the underlying structure of the word problem.

There are some great resources that will walk teachers through these steps. One such book is RTI in Math Instruction. (That’s a resource, based on research, with empirically supported techniques.)

Teaching Math to Students with LD and ADHD: Interview with Adena Young, Ph.D.| BayTreeBlog.com

So much of math is about using problem-solving skills. How do you cultivate these abilities to solve word problems?

Dr. Young argues that we need to teach kids how to use their problem-solving skills. She talks about kids having a “number crunching brain” and a “common sense brain.” We want students thinking, “‘Does this make sense?’ In practice, kids really connect with this.”

“Problem-solving skills can also be explicitly taught,” according to Dr. Young. You can explicitly teach students to move through these three steps:

  1. Planning
  2. Monitoring
  3. Evaluating

“[Many kids] can learn this through modeling [from a teacher]. Over time, kids begin to internalize this process.”

I’ve created a worksheet using Dr. Young’s three-part process for solving word problems. Click here to download this worksheet for solving word problems.

Any tips for mastering math facts?

“For different kids,” Dr. Young says, “I recommend different things.”

  • “Continue to practice. The current recommendation is about 10 minutes a day.” You only need to keep practicing the difficult facts. You can use flashcards or apps.
  • Get moving. “For kids who really don’t want to practice, I recommend going outside and tossing around a football [while going through the math facts].”
  • Practice the math facts visually by writing.
  • Practice the math facts auditorily by saying them aloud.
  • You can even come up with mnemonics or songs.
  • “Continue to practice [over time] so long as [the student is] not getting burned out.”

Some students don’t seem to get very far even though they’re practicing their math facts. What do you think about accommodations for students whose progress stalls?

Dr. Young shared, “If there is a learning disability getting in the way [of learning math facts], we want to be talking about accommodations. The most important accommodation is the multiplication table. I like that much better than a calculator. A multiplication table gives you easy access to the math facts, but it also helps you to do things like factoring and division.”

Kids with disabilities are also going to need extra time to do their work. “In class, they may need a slower pace of instruction. On tests, they’ll also need extra time to come up with their solutions.”

Thank you, Dr. Young!

I’m thrilled that Dr. Young is writing her first book this summer which will cover many of the topics we addressed today! I’ll update this page as the book moves towards publication. I’m getting a copy as soon as it’s published! In the meantime, please feel free to ask any questions in the comments!

About Dr. Adena Young

Adena Young, Ph.D., is a licensed educational psychologist who specializes in mathematics education. In her private practice, based in Oakland, California, she offers psychoeducational testing and individualized academic and social-emotional support for students with mathematics learning difficulties and disabilities. She also provides school-based consultation and workshops for educators, and is currently writing a book about how to support students who are struggling with math. You can find more information about Adena and her perspectives on mathematics teaching and learning at www.adenayoung.com.



Photo Attributions

“No 2 Pencil” is copyright (c) 2007 Dave Matos and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode.

“Discussing ‘elegant’ math equations in IB Theory of Knowledge (ToK) class today. A HL Math student shared this equation she thought was elegant” is copyright (c) 2013 Thomas Galvez 2012 and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode.

4 Replies to “Teaching Math to Students with LD and ADHD: Interview with Adena Young, Ph.D.”

  1. This is a wonderful article. I’m not a math educator, but I gleaned a number of ideas that I’m excited to apply to my own teaching practice. Thank you Anne-Marie for your work!

  2. This is a great article. As a parent, I have found that my little one has a hard time understanding the wording of the question being asked but he can do the problem how can i support him?

    1. Hi Diane, Great question! I’ve found that the language in math word problems are unnecessarily complex. Here are a few recommendations:

      1. Rewrite the question using simpler language. Use one or two syllable words instead of multi-syllable words.
      2. Shorten the sentences. Aim for just six to seven words in most sentences.
      3. Ask your child to explain the question to you.
      4. Help you child make links between the current question being asked and past problems your child has encountered. S/he may need your help linking prior knowledge to the task at hand.
      5. Use physical objects or drawings to provide visual supports.

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