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Tips for Improving Executive Functioning Difficulties in Math


Students with executive functioning difficulties may struggle in math class, particularly when dealing with multi-step equations and word problems. As math becomes increasingly more complex, this often becomes more apparent.

What exactly do executive functioning difficulties look like in a math class?

Executive functioning difficulty in math can show up in many different ways. Below are a few things you may see more often if your student is struggling with executive functioning in math class.

Rushing Through Math Assignments and Assessments

Students who have executive functioning challenges may rush through their homework, in-class assignments, and assessments. This is especially apparent when students do not like math or find it difficult. To be done with it, they will go through it as quickly as possible without stopping to consider whether they are answering the correct questions or checking their answers.

Losing Their Place in Multi-step Problems or Story Problems

Multi-step equations and word problems can be an issue for many students, but especially for students who have executive functioning difficulties. They often lose their place in the problem, having difficulty maintaining their attention to the problem and following the sequence of steps for solving it.

Difficulty Holding Information in Working Memory For Use in Problem Solving

Working memory is something many of us take for grant. It’s the ability to hold in your memory (in small amounts) information to use for cognitive processes. For example, when completing a double-digit subtraction problem, students need to remember to “borrow” a ten, indicate the borrowed ten in the hundreds column and change the number in the ones column. Students with working memory difficulty can forget steps and generally have to write down EVERYTHING so they don’t forget the steps and can find the correct answer to the problem.

Making Careless Mistakes and Not Checking Their Work

While many of us are guilty of not checking our work in math, it’s crucial for students with executive functioning challenges as they often make careless mistakes that they can discover when reviewing their work. Reminding them to slow down and check work can help them perform better on assignments and assessments. With my students, I remind them that addition and subtraction are inverse operations, so we can do the problem backwards to make sure we have the correct answer.

Students with executive functioning challenges respond well to visuals like anchor charts and checklists, so these are great to start with as you explore working with your child/student on math skills. Creating a “math notebook” which is essentially a binder of anchor charts and reference sheets is something I like to do with my middle school math students. It’s a tool that they can use when they are stuck and refer back to whenever needed.

My Favorite Tools for Teaching Math to Students with Executive Functioning Challenges

  • TimeTimer (great for helping students learn how long tasks take vs. how long they “think” it takes.
  • Math Fidget Popper (helps with students that need a tactile experience and like to keep their hands busy).
  • Multiplication Chart. Yes, we all had to learn to memorize our times tables, but students with executive functioning difficulty respond well to having a chart to help alleviate working memory when solving multi-step or story problems.
  • Math Reference Notebooks. Great for providing visual support and diagrams for students to use when problem solving.
  • Specially-designed whiteboards. I use these ALL of the time in my classroom to help students remember to carry and keep their digits lined up when executing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems.

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