Thinking skills and learning maths in children with ADHD

Successful maths learning is linked to a range of skills involving processing of numbers. When a child finds learning maths tricky these number skills are often focused on as the source of the difficulty. Learning maths also relies on having good thinking skills such as efficient memory. Much less focus though has been given to the importance of these thinking skills. Understanding this relationship is particularly important for helping children with ADHD learn maths as many of these children show difficulties with these thinking skills.

We recently published a systematic review, which is a ‘study of studies’ on this topic. Our review looked at published papers of studies that had researched the relationship between thinking skills and maths learning in children with ADHD. This review revealed that there are very few studies that have looked at this important relationship – only 4 studies matched the criteria we had set. These studies differed from one another in a number of ways such as the tasks they used to assess thinking skills. However we were able to systematically review them and come to some conclusions about what research is telling us on this topic.

First, as expected, thinking skills were positively related to children’s maths performance. This means that better thinking scores were related to higher maths test scores in children with ADHD. Memory emerged as playing an important role in maths learning. There are different types of memory such as short-term memory where we hold information in a short term store and more strategic aspects of memory which involve not just holding the numbers in our mind but also when we have to update the information we are holding in memory. Updating is far more than just holding the numbers in memory but involved when you have to for example add or delete numbers and really actively update the information you are holding in your mind. Our review showed that this latter type of memory known as ‘working memory’ was particularly important for maths attainment in children with ADHD. Our own research studies has shown that many children with ADHD have difficulties in their working memory and it is therefore important that there is understanding that this may be contributing to any problems that the child is having with maths. Our EPIC intervention focuses on improving understanding and supporting this type of memory and ideas from our booklets may be useful in supporting children’s educational learning.

In our review we found differences between what is known as ‘verbal’ and ‘non-verbal’ types of memory and their relationship with maths. ‘Verbal memory’ involves memory processes such as those involved in rehearsal of number facts (e.g. repeating 5+5=10, 6+6 =12). What is referred to as ‘visuospatial memory’ in a nutshell involves seeing and representing information ‘spatially’. What is meant by that? The best way to understand this is with an example. So when working out what 6+7 adds up to – one way is to visually see 6+6=12 while at the same time working out 12+1=13 in your mind.

Our review seemed to suggest that verbal memory (such as being able to repeat numbers in your mind) was linked to numerical calculation skills (i.e. being able to add numbers). Quite differently, what is known as ‘visuospatial memory’ (described in the example above) was linked to children’s conceptual understanding which means being able to understand the rules of maths while calculating numbers. What does this all mean for children who have memory difficulties? This means that the type of memory difficulties children with ADHD (or other condition) have will impact the type of maths they have difficulties with. If they have typical verbal working memory they may not have difficulties with learning to add numbers. If they have reduced ‘visuospatial memory capacity’ though (see example above of visually holding numbers in mind) they may not be able to use conceptual rules that help us do maths as easily as their peers.

The key question is how can we help children with ADHD (or others with these thinking difficulties) with their learning? Reducing memory load is a really useful technique to support children with this type of difficulty, such as using a mini-whiteboard so they can see a visual breakdown of sums or using items like lego pieces to represent numbers. The child being active in their learning, such as using the lego pieces themselves to work out sums, can make a transformational impact on them wanting to participate as well as their understanding.

Much more research is needed on this important topic. We know that maths attainment can be an important predictor of many life outcomes such as career attainment. It is really important we understand the thinking difficulties that underlie being able to confidently engage in maths learning and develop strategies to support these children. This is not only important for them being able to access learning like their peers but also that they understand the everyday strategies they need to have a happy school experience.

Visual photo credit: Photographer valentinrussanov via Getty images.

Author: Sinead Rhodes

Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, University of Edinburgh Founder and Chair of Research the Headlines RSE Young Academy of Scotland

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