Raising and Educating a Deaf Child

International experts answer your questions about the choices, controversies, and decisions faced by the parents and educators of deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

Question from Name Withheld by Request

I have a deaf son, who is in a school for the deaf. He is currently in seventh grade (13 years old). He is having trouble in math and I am particularly worried about next year. I am involved in deaf education and aware of deaf students’ academic performance, but I believe my son has some particular math-related difficulty (he seems to be doing okay in other subjects). My initial thought was that he needed instruction in American Sign Language rather than SimCom, but even though this year’s math teacher uses ASL, it has not helped much. I took him to a doctor a neurologist/pediatrician who suggested that he might have some visuospatial processing difficulty and is going to send him for some more testing. More pertinent, perhaps, my son seems to have a lack of motivation with regard to mathematics (unlike other subjects) although, of course, it’s unclear whether this is cause or effect. Do you have any suggestions?

Question from Name Withheld by Request. Posted June 2, 2009.
Response from Rebecca Bull - University of Aberdeen

Research with hearing children with math difficulties (MD) has identified a specific subgroup of children who have problems with processing visual-spatial information despite having excellent verbal skills. The types of math errors that might suggest this include misalignment of numbers when writing out sums, writing numbers back to front or inverting numbers (e.g., writing 13 as 31), problems in visual attention and monitoring such as ignoring signs or changing operation part way through completion of problems, and acquiring concepts of borrowing and carrying. You would not typically see problems with acquiring basic arithmetical facts which is supposedly supported more by the verbal system. The visual-spatial system also supports other aspects of non-verbal numerical processing such as number magnitude, estimation, and representing information in a spatial form, as in a mental number line. There is also published research showing that visual-spatial skills (typically visual-spatial memory) predict children’s mathematical ability. We don’t yet have detailed information about whether these same types of difficulties may explain math learning difficulties in deaf children.

I’m reluctant to say anything about the social-motivational side just now as I’m relatively new to this area, although we will know more of course once we have collected our data in the current study. It may be that any early difficulties have had a negative impact this child’s enjoyment of the subject, and hence is not showing much motivation to learn. Below a reference to one paper on the subject, but there are others (referenced there and others that have been published since). See Bull, R. & Espy, K. A., & Wiebe, S. (2008). Short-term memory, working memory and executive functioning: Longitudinal predictors of mathematics achievement at age 7. Developmental Neuropsychology, 33, 205-228.

Jennifer Adams, from the Rochester School for the Deaf, adds: You might want to look into Touch Math. It is a multisensory, research-tested system for helping students with the conceptual basis of mathematics, in a long time, and so on. Much of it might seem a bit “young” for your son, but elements of it should be helpful and fun even for older deaf students.