During my time as a doctoral student, I shifted my research away from functional living skills to academic skills for learners with more severe intellectual disability. I’ve always worked with this population, whether in a school, clinic, or residential facility. And for a long time, I focused on those skills that would help them become more independent. But during my doc program, I really dug into the research and found that basic academics, such as those taught to typically developing kids, isn’t presented in the same way to my favorite kids. Rote learning seemed to be the way for these kids to acquire skills. Now, I’m speaking in some broad generalities here, but the term “functional curriculum” carries a lot of weight in an IEP discussion. And it shouldn’t.
All evidence shows that every child can learn when we find the right way to teach them. Often that is systematic instruction. And this is especially true with mathematics. Math has become my favorite subject to teach and I focus on those pre-numeracy skills that you need before you can even do addition and subtraction. These skills include having a number sense, counting with one-to-one correspondence, and using place values. Those are just some of the skills that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2000) consider the building blocks to more advanced math and will typically be learned before second grade in most non-impaired kids. But they don’t develop easily in those with intellectual disability.
Why early numeracy? Because without these skills, you can’t move on. Anything you learn will be rote responding with very limited future application? Have you ever met a child who could sing their numbers to 20 but not identify them when you held up a flash card? Or tell you what comes between 7 and 9 without singing the song? That child is lacking the pre-numeracy skills. How about the kid that counts a pile of 6 blocks all the way to 10 when just looking at them? Missing counting with 1:1 correspondence. This is another critical skill. Counting is different from counting with 1:1 correspondence and both are important. The good news is all of these can be taught. We just need to find the right way. And that’s what I am trying to do.
I don’t want this to be a long post, so I’ll leave it there with you thinking about math in, hopefully, a different way. When you dig into it, math is much more complex than we like to think. Much of what we do seems reflexive. We have fluency in our math skills. But when you think about how you learned those skills, you find they aren’t easily broken down without some serious thinking. And that’s the fun part. I’m joining a distinguished group of researchers also working on this problem so that we can improve the math instruction for my favorite kids. Stay tuned.
Collins, B. C. (2012). Systematic instruction for students with moderate and severe disabilities. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2000). Curriculum and evaluation standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.