Whether we are proficient in mathematics or struggle with the simplest calculations, we seldom, if ever, think about the neurological or cognitive functions involved in solving math problems. In fact, math requires the use of many complex brain functions working together toward a common goal.
To solve even simple math problems, students must use their memories to recall rules and formulas, recognize patterns, invoke rules about sequential ordering to solve multi-step problems, use advanced language skills to understand vocabulary and instructions and explain processes and rationale. In addition, students must be able to use spatial ordering to recognize symbols and to understand three-dimensional representations of objects. Perhaps more importantly, higher-order cognition allows students to consider alternative strategies while solving problems, to monitor their thinking, to assess the reasonableness of their answers, and to transfer and apply learned skills to new problems. Usually several, or all, of these brain functions occur simultaneously in the process of solving a single math problem.
The complexity of the mathematical process provides multiple opportunities for breakdowns to occur, and math disabilities can arise at nearly any stage of a child’s development. Although very little is known about the biological causes of math disabilities, many experts attribute these problems to deficiencies in one or more of six different skills. These deficits can exist independently of one another or can occur in combination. All can impact a child’s ability to progress in mathematics.