Non-Verbal Learning Disorder & Math Difficulties


Schools have many achievement expectations for students. For some students there are large barriers preventing them from meeting these expectations. Nonverbal learning disability is one that often makes learning subjects requiring spatial relationships difficult. Yet, with the right accommodations, students with this disability can learn to be successful with all of their subjects, including math.


  • Nonverbal learning disability (NLD) appears to affect males and females equally. Its deficits are based in the right hemisphere of the brain, which is responsible for understanding the spatial relationships between things. NLD manifests itself in children by making it difficult for them in several categories: fine motor skills, understanding what they see, drawing or writing what they see, remembering patterns in what they saw and organizing the information.

Specific Difficulties

  • NLD can look very different in younger children than it does in older children. Younger children often avoid activities that are difficult for them, such as building activities with blocks or legos and coloring. Gross motor skills might be affected or delayed, making some activities like riding a bike difficult. Most children can learn many of the skills required like reciting the alphabet or spelling their name out loud, but they have difficulty when asked to write these down on paper. Older children might have problems with classes like art and physical education and using tools.


  • The skills required for math might be especially difficult for students with NLD. Understanding relationships between objects is necessary when judging distances, reading charts and understanding maps. As students progress through years of math, each skill builds upon a simpler one learned previously. Because of this, students who have trouble in the early years with basic skills will continue to have problems with more complicated math.


  • Decluttering material, or making its appearance simpler often helps student focus on the information they need to solve a math problem. Only information necessary to complete the work should be on a page of math problems. Anything else can distract students with NLD, making it difficult for them to complete their work. Teachers should assist in the most basic skills such as counting to ensure they are able to use basic skills when problems become more complicated. Teaching them to use fingers or a manipulative like beads for counting are methods for doing this. Using a technique called self-talk--students explain what they are doing out loud to themselves--is another way to assist them in learning to solve math problems. Hearing their own thought processes allows them to solidify concepts and catch mistakes when expressing them verbally. This also allows a teacher to pinpoint exactly where a student might be going off course.


  • Practical skills such as banking and cooking are a useful way to work on math skills. Some ideas include balancing a pretend checkbook and following a simple recipe from start to finish. By using real life experiences, students able to practice learned skills in a purposeful way. It allows them to see the information in a different way that might be easier for them to understand.


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