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This is how we do it

A special education coordinator recently sent me a long list of questions about how to teach maths to children and young people with learning difficulties and disabilities. Over the next few weeks, I'll share my answers here at Most answers will apply to students of all ages and will help you with your teaching for the roughly 30% of students in your school who find math tricky.

Here are the first three questions of this month-long series. Enjoy!

1. How can you teach a child with special educational needs (SEN) to move on from doing all his adding and subtracting in his head (or using his fingers for large numbers)?

Although this might seem obvious, here's how I would start with this:

  1. Ask the following questions: Are they getting it correct? Why do you think they are doing it - what function does it serve for them?

  2. Are they getting it correct? If so, ensure they understand the concept by asking different questions. If not, shift from having them complete more problems to completing a smaller number of problems correctly (i.e. quality of quantity). This is a “culture” shift and will take time!

  3. Why do you think they are doing it? He/she needs a method that works for them- they probably don't have a reliable one, which is why they are over-using an inefficient method (like using fingers to count). Try and find something that works for them, teach them to use it independently, and help them use it in different contexts.

  4. CRA Maths (concrete – representational – abstract method) - change the rules! Give them marks (a grade) for correctly drawing out the numbers (representational methods- see later) rather than simply getting the answer.

2. What mathematical language do you use to support a child with SEN?

We have at least 5 senses so we really oughta use them in our teaching! It’s important to remember that language is verbal, visual, and more!

Verbal language must be simple, clear, consistent and supported by concrete objects or visuals until they are no longer needed. Teaching them gestures to deeply embed addition, subtraction, etc. will aid with muscle memory for the operations and symbolic (-, +, =, etc.) understanding. Here are some basic terms and phrases I use to connect with students for the basic operations:

Addition: Counting on, Re-grouping (instead of "carrying")

Subtraction: Counting back, Un-grouping, Decomposing

Multiplication: Repeated addition, Skip-counting

Division: Repeated subtraction, Repeated sharing, Sharing

Equal: Balance, Same/similar

3. What resources can you suggest for teaching a student with learning difficulties?

Concrete (hands-on):

An online search for “concrete maths resources” will yield many results- Base-10s, Dienes blocks, Numicon fix-it (clicking) cubes, etc (I find base-10s [called "Dienes" in the UK] to be the most versatile across the age groups and operations.


When you've taught students to use Base-10 blocks, drawing out the shapes can be extremely helpful in moving students from hands-on objects to pencil and paper activities.

Drawing squares for hundreds, sticks for tens, small dots/lines for ones (see below) can be used for adding, subtracting, multiplying and division. Below I demonstrate how you can draw these out:

What number have I drawn below?


I have attached my Drawing Out Numbers Guide below for for you to use. It's thorough, uses SEN-friendly language, and will require consistent teaching (months and years). It is one of the most valuable resources I've either used or developed over the years.

Click here to download your *free* copy of my Drawing Out Numbers Guide (will open in a new window)


Next week I'll answer the following question:

How can you teach a child with SEN to retain information?

...and more!