First Grader Struggling with Number Sense- Could She Have a Disability in Math?

Updated on January 24, 2014
B.C. asks from Hialeah, FL
20 answers

My 6 year old, first grader, is really struggling in math lately and is starting to concern me because now she is saying that she hates math! She is getting by with decent grades on math tests, but that is honestly only because I work with her so much at home! I try to make it fun for her using math games and she does like doing that better! But I still see the struggle and it's almost like there is a disconnect with number sense in general. She can add and subtract fine. But has difficulty understanding place value (tens and ones), greater and less than numbers (like 45 and 28), sometimes she will get confused and think that 28 is bigger because she is looking at the ones. Could these things indicate a learning disability in math? Or is a lot of this just developmental??? I really just don't like the fact that she is getting a very negative attitude towards math!! She is ABSOLUTELY the youngest in her class, turned 6 in Sept. so could it just be that developmentally she is not ready to do these things? OR should she know these things by this age? Very concerned! :(

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So What Happened?

Thank to all for your responses. I sometimes like an outside opinion to keep myself grounded. And I think most of you are right in saying she sounds pretty normal for her age and that this is not a disability. Just this week, we studied all week for her math test ( through games that she actually loves to do, I do make it fun for her, no drill and kill) and she came home with a 92% on her test! I was so proud of her! I am just realizing that she just needs a little extra support because numbers are still very abstract for her! But see, my job is a school psychologist- and so I deal with children with disabilities all the time!! And you would think even more reason for me to be able to tell the difference and come to my senses and realize she DOES NOT have one! but that is not as easy when 1- you know so much information and 2- you are dealing with your own child. It seems like things just get clouded and you lose a little bit of your judgment when you are so emotionally involved. The part of my brain that uses common sense ( and is not emotionally attached to my child's difficulties) makes me realize that she would not have gotten a 92% if she truly had a learning disability with just a few games we played for a couple of days!

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answers from San Francisco on

I agree 100% with Hell on Wheels! My GD's teacher told me that she also hates this new math and the way it's taught and was candid enough to tell me that SHE doesn't understand most of it. She also told me that she allows the students who do get it to teach it. The kids know how to get through to the other kids and it's working really well.

I really don't think it's a learning deficit at all. It's the way it's taught, and like another poster pointed out, it's abstract and that's very hard for very young children. I think if you were to follow the advice of making it something she can see, feel and manipulate she will catch on faster.

Good luck.

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answers from Seattle on

There is a mathematical dyslexia, it's called dyscalculia. It is to math what dyslexia is to reading and/or dysgraphia is to writing.

There is also a "letter to my math teacher" somewhere on the site that might help you understand her mindset better. I WISH more was known about this when I was going to school. If I ever go back I'm getting this formally diagnosed in myself.


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answers from Washington DC on

i'm glad you are sensitive to the fact that she SHOULDN'T hate math and are concerned that it not turn into an issue.
at 6 i would not be concerned that she finds it confusing. the problem is that there's no way to really back off a school kid, since she has to keep up. i think i WOULD back off at home, which i know sounds counter-intuitive since it's your work with her that is preventing her from falling behind. can you JUST do math games with her at home, and live with it for at least a brief span if her grades go down? often if the pressure is relieved briefly, it allows the brain to take a breath and come back to the issue fresh.
if she were a homeschooler i'd temporarily quit doing all formal study and worksheets, and work math entirely into an interest of hers (it's amazing how you can shoehorn math into horses, or the civil war, or dairy goats, or mesopotamian river cultures.)
what does her teacher say?

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answers from Minneapolis on

I think these things are indicating that she is six... If you haven't spoken with the teacher, I would suggest that. The teacher should be able to give you a clearer picture of where your daughter is according to "expectations" and about what types of things you can do at home. Personally, I would stick to games at home.

My daughter was labeled with a "learning disability" in reading in 2nd grade. She now, in 6th grade, she reads at an adult level (tests at 99.9th percentile in reading). Kids brains develop at different rates in different subjects. Sometimes the best we can do is back off and wait, so we don't make them hate the subject, the school, or learning in general.

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answers from Cleveland on

Doesn't sound out of line to me. I remember my oldest struggling with the idea of the tens place vs ones place and being concerned and now in 4th grade she is very strong in math. (also young for her grade) Two digit numbers I think can take a while to click. Sometimes it's so basic to us we don't see how our kids don't understand something unless it means they are not bright or have a disability. But I think usually it's just age... Hopefully they'll move on from this soon too. What I saw was they'd touch on stuff and then move on and go back to it in 2nd grade. I'd help her get through her homework but then not dwell on it. Give it some time before you panic and push her more.

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answers from San Francisco on

I really feel like the common core math curriculum is doing a huge disservice to kids. Unfortunately, the "new" way to teach math is, at its heart, very confusing to a lot of kids. I have such a huge problem with the way math is being taught in our public schools right now that I pulled both of my kids out of school, and now I'm homeschooling them. (And for the record, now that we have a good curriculum at home, they both LOOOOOVE math!)

If I may suggest it, you might like to check out the Life of Fred math series. It is short, sweet, and to the point, yet presents the information in a way that is very easy for kids to understand. The math is presented in story form, and we are able to do a chapter in 20 minutes or less. My kids' math knowledge has grown by leaps and bounds since we started using this curriculum, because it makes them think. It's not the typical "teach to the test" instruction that they'd get in school. Here's a link to it, if you're interested: I think this could actually make a big difference in your daughter's understanding and enjoyment of math.

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answers from Denver on

This isn't likely a learning disability. This is likely a deficit in the education system. Our current system mostly teaches in an auditory style even though we now know that this is the least effective and serves the smallest group of students. It sounds like you daughter may be more visual and kinesthetic. Plus, math is an abstract idea and your daughter is still developmentally in a concrete stage.

Make the concepts more concrete rather than abstract. Us M&Ms, or little rocks, or anything that she can group together and count. Things that she can put in a group and see how one group is bigger than the other. She can literally add and subtract objects from each group. This method will allow her to integrate all the concepts she is hearing about with something that she can see, feel, and actually manipulate.

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answers from New York on


- Let's start with the absolutey worse case scenario - she struggles with math, will always have problems, hates math and might need help. IT's so NOT a big deal. Zillions of people struggle with math but still have a great life using their other strengths. My 17 yr old niece has had to go to summer school for math. But she is a gifted writer and at age 13 was recognized on a state level for her writing. We all have different skills and weaknesses.

- Could it be Common Core Curricullum is making your cihld crazy with it's very strange way of teaching / testing? I would have failed it for usre. The methodolog make no sense!

- Get her vision & hearing tested. I was a horrible math student until I got glasses and I coiuld see what the teacher was writing on the board...!

No worries mama. Our kids all come along if given the right direction. Some are finance geniuses and some run plumbing companies. the finance guy helps the plumber retire, the plumber rescues the finance executive when his basement is flooded. All of our jobs count.

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answers from Denver on

It sounds like she does struggle with some math concepts, but I don't know if I'd go so far as to say it's a math disability.

My son has never been officially diagnosed with a math disability, although we all (teachers, me, his dad, himself, etc) recognize that there's a disconnect somewhere. He's 16, in 10th grade. He does not know his times tables. He memorizes some of them sometimes and even remembers them for an afternoon. But the next day it's like he's never seen it before. For him, 3 x 7 = 21 is a totally different equation to 7 x 3 = 21. And 4 + 5 = 9 has absolutely no relationship to 9 - 5 = 4. They are 2 completely different equations. And seeing the relationship between the multiplication and division just doesn't exist.

He can count by 10s, but if you ask him what's 4 x 10, he'll use his fingers and count it up all the way to 40. You should see him do 9 x 9! Takes him a while to get that. And he has to do it EVERY SINGLE TIME. He has memorized the steps to do long division, and he sometimes even gets the answer correct. But it takes him a really, REALLY long time to get through one problem.

He cannot tell time. If he has to meet a friend at 3 and it takes 15 minutes to get there, he wouldn't know what time to leave without us telling him.

He's been in special math classes since 6th grade. Once, in 7th grade, he brought home the exact same math worksheet for homework as his sister in 4th grade. She wizzed through it. It took him an hour. With our help on every problem.

He's in Algebra now because our state requires Sophomores to take a statewide Algebra exam at the end of the year. He does not belong in Algebra. He will fail this exam. I'm not saying that like I'm judging him. I'm saying that based on all of our math experiences. Luckily, his year is the "guinea pig" year with this new test, so he won't have to pass it to graduate (the kids a year below him WILL have to pass to graduate). We dodged a bullet there.

So to answer your question, your 6yr old is having difficulty in math, but it seems pretty normal for this age. My now 11yr old also had some difficulties with math at that age. She is also the youngest in her class. Now, in 6th grade, she has a solid 98% in math, with barely any effort. It just clicked for her. Your little girl is being introduced to concepts she's never seen before. Chances are things will click after a while. Some of the things she's having difficulty with might just take some practice. She can do addition and subtraction, so she's getting some of the building blocks she needs. I'm sorry to hear she's starting to hate math. I like some of the suggestions to try to make math fun, or sneak in some math when she doesn't even realize she's doing it. If the difficulties continue, a tutor might be the way to go.

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answers from San Francisco on

I agree with the others that say the way they are teaching math in Common Core is really weird and not very good... or at least it doesn't seem good to those of us used to doing math the "old fashioned" way. I also have a first grader, so I'm very familiar with the type of work your daughter is being asked to do.

I don't think she has a disability, since she's able to learn the material and score well on tests. I just think that she's not as quick to pick it up as some of her classmates. I highly doubt she's the only one though. My son's class does "math facts" testing every week - 20 questions in about 60-90 seconds, done orally. They have a full week, sometimes two weeks, to practice. While half the class has progressed to test 4 (they've only been doing it a few weeks), the other half are still stuck on test 1 or 2. Test 1 is basic addition with no sum greater than 5, and a few kids just can't pass it. So your daughter is not significantly behind, especially if she's adding and subtracting.

For the greater than less than, use objects to go along with the numbers. Get counting bears (sold at places like Lakeshore Learning) or coins, marbles, game pieces, etc. Write the numbers 45 and 28, then have her guess which is greater. After that, have her count out the bears - 45 in one pile, 28 in the other - so she can visually see which is greater.

Also, try not to work with her TOO much at home. If you're spending a lot of time every day, she's getting burned out and that's probably causing a lot of her negativity. Try to limit it to about 10 minutes or so on top of whatever homework she has. Just play one or two quick games, and then move on to something else.

It'll click... it's just taking a little bit longer. I don't think her age is necessarily the cause. We have kids that turned 7 in September and kids that turned 6 in October and some of the oldest are in the lowest groups while some of the youngest are in the highest.

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answers from Chicago on

I think she just needs practice--if she is doing addition and subtraction without problems, that's great!

The math games that you do--are they online ones? If so, perhaps she needs more hands-on games. You might want to check a teacher supply store to see what they recommend. There's a great one near us that I'm headed to today because my 1st grader is having trouble with his math facts. Here's their online store:

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answers from Richland on

Some kids aren't good at math. Math to me is like breathing, grammar, it is a foreign language. For me grammar sounds like your daughter with math. I have no learning disabilities, I just have no aptitude for grammar. The likely reason, because I am so strong in math, logic based. Nothing logical about grammar.

You also have to remember a number is just a symbol that represents quantity. There is nothing inherent in the number 28 that would mean it is 28 units of anything. Sure that there are two digits instead of one would intuitively say it is higher than 8 but even that concept is learned.

Guess I am saying she hasn't fully memorized one through ten and how they relate to each other. It happens because everyone just pushes on to one to one hundred as quickly as possible. So make sure she has one to ten down cold. Then understand that the two digits is always higher than one, three is always higher than two...... Then start with the first digit, say 28 and 32, three is higher than two, done. 32 and 36, three is equal to three, move to the next digit (just like reading left to right), two is less than six, done.

No discipline can be mastered if you have not learned the foundation.

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answers from Dallas on

I teach first and second grade Sunday School. It sounds pretty typical for the age.

Like Suz T we work it in to our subject. If we look at page numbers in the bible or chapters or verse numbers, we ask them, if that number is bigger. If it is, go to the right to find bigger numbers or to the left to find smaller numbers.

Very few really understand the concept. I think it is developemental. Try page numbers in simple books.

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answers from Pittsburgh on

Some kids this age have trouble with abstract concepts - and it's normal developmentally.

My school has gone to a math curriculum where every topic in the early grades is taught with actual objects that can be manipulated first, before doing anything with paper and pencil. Small blocks in different colors where if blue blocks are ones and red blocks are 10s, you can move them around when you add to show how 10 blue blocks equals 1 red block. And when you have to regroup in division, how you can substitute 10 blue blocks for a red one, and then move them into the ones column to subtract.

Based on what you are saying, I would suggest looking for some fun math games to do at home that are based on this kind of concrete learning with objects to move around. Let her understand what ones and tens look and feel like, and once she has that down, she'll be better at understanding it in a math problem on a piece of paper.

For ideas, google 'math manipulatives'

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answers from New York on

I teach first grade math. place value is new to them and should be practiced, repeated, reviewed a lot! She sounds average! Are they using base ten blocks at her school to represent the numbers? (Ask if you're not sure) are they calling these cubes, longs, and flats or ones, tens and hundreds or something else? Use the same words at home. You can make something similar by having her glue ten beans on popsicle sticks. Now when you ask her to compare 28 and 45 she has to show 28 with two ten sticks and 8 loose beans and compare it to four sticks and five loose beans. She should practice a lot with these manipulatives until she can picture them in her mind. has free printables you can custom make to practice when she is ready for worksheets.

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answers from Honolulu on

She is in 2nd grade.
Its okay.
She is NOT the only one... like this.
MANY 2nd graders, still have trouble with doing even simple subtraction. Or with counting by 2's or 3's etc.
For example.
I know. I work at an elementary school and Sub teach.
Kids are taught math, in a variety of ways.
Manipulatives, pencil and paper, mental math, using their fingers, memorization, visuals, etc.
It is still, abstract... to them.
It does not matter, that your child is 6 or 7.
Both my kids are late born, and turned 6 in 2nd grade. MANY of the kids were too. In their class. And it is fine.

Have you spoken to her Teacher????
Do so.

Continue to work with her at home.
But do not focus on only, the "grades" that she gets. That would get anyone discouraged. Because, it makes a person "compare" themselves to others. And that is not good. There will ALWAYS be, someone who is better/faster, or slower/worse. So don't compare, her. Openly. To her classmates. Teach her the joy... in learning and the process of it. Even genius people, struggle with learning things. Tell her that.

Math is not something that is just comprehended in one swoop.
It takes, repetition. It takes practicing it.
Math is a very abstract, thing.

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answers from New York on

Sounds like she is a normal first grader. Just keep working with her. Don't jump on the disability bandwagon because things are not as easy as you would like it to be. Time is your friend.


answers from Hartford on

I was coming in here to say what Rosehawk said. Here's a great resource for you too:

EDIT: The long link didn't hyperlink correctly so if you click this short link and then do a search for Dyscalculia it will bring you to some valuable articles. The NCLD/National Center for Learning Disabilities is a wonderful, wonderful resource.



answers from Oklahoma City on

Hey Mama,
I would email the teacher and share your concerns. Have you checked out any of the websites that offer ways to practice the concepts? My daughter will do some extra practice off the Internet to help solidify her grasp of concepts. My daughter's teacher used Lego towers to help illustrate place values.



answers from Dallas on

I am glad you are staying on top of the situation and recognizing their may be a problem. Ask for extra help from the teacher or from tutoring. It may be a developmental issue or just a very difficult concept to master for a six year old. She may also have a learning disability- when my daughter was tested for dyslexia many years ago we were told it does not just impact reading, but understanding number placement and sequences as well. Let the teacher know how much you are working with her on her math and see if they have any suggestions. Good luck.

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