Learning Challenges

Solve for X: Learning Algebra with ADHD

High school math requires high-level skills. Help your teen succeed in algebra with these problem-solving pointers — designed especially for the learning styles of students with ADHD.


Most kids with ADHD find learning algebra challenging. They have to solve multi-step problems that require knowing the order of operations, add negative numbers to positive ones, and balance both sides of an equation. Here’s how to help them succeed.

Tools for Teachers

> Use white boards. When doing problems involving an order of operations, or solving equations for a variable, show each step on a different white board.

> Use color to highlight like terms in an equation or when graphing systems of equations. Put x coordinates in one color, y coordinates in another. Assign different colors to positive and negative terms in an equation.

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> Give your class notes listing every step in solving an algebra problem. Keep notes well organized, setting up problems as they will look on homework and tests.

> Come up with real-life scenarios that students can visualize and relate to when solving equations and simplifying expressions. For instance, adding integers can be turned into a battle — which side has more troops?

> Explain to students that an equation is like a balance scale. If you subtract the same number from each side, the equation stays balanced.

> Label the parts that make up a word problem. Many students with ADHD have difficulty setting up the equation correctly from a word problem. Labeling parts of the problem makes it easier to solve. Draw circles around important facts in a problem. Cross out any unnecessary facts with an “x,” and underline what the problem is asking you to find — “how much” or “total cost.”

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> Show the solution on the graph when solving for the vertex in quadratics. When solving for the x- and y-intercepts of an equation, or the solution to one or more equations, do the same thing. When translating word problems into equations, have students connect parts of the equation back to the original problem and/or test a solution to check for reasonableness.

> Don’t introduce too many rules. When graphing inequalities and absolute value inequalities on a coordinate plane or number line, don’t introduce a “rule” for shading. Instead, test points to see which region needs to be shaded. This way, students will deduce the “rule” or see a pattern on their own.

> Avoid teaching “rules” that will be forgotten after a test or quiz. Give students the tools to understand the procedures and what a solution means.

> Use videos in the classroom to demonstrate procedures and show visuals. Post the links to the school or class website.

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> Create algebra vocabulary quizzes on the class website. Quizlet.com is an excellent source for developing them.

Pointers for Parents

> Watch algebra videos on the school website — and work on problems with your child. Even if you don’t fully understand the concept, a child benefits from seeing her parent working through it. It’s also an opportunity for the child to teach you things that he learned in the classroom.

> Use manipulatives. Cut out small squares and rectangles from colored card stock — positive numbers in yellow, negative numbers in red, “x” tiles in green. Work on solving problems using the tiles. Abstract concepts are more easily grasped in the form of concrete representations displayed by the tiles.

> The math of Khan. Khan Academy (khanacademy.org) has a large library of videos that teach algebra to students. Each video is approximately 10 minutes long, tailor-made to be watched on a computer. The site generates practice problems for your child to solve.

> Develop mnemonics. To remember the order of operations in an equation, use the acrostic Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally (PEMDAS). It will help your child remember which operation to do first: Parentheses, Exponents, Multiply, Divide, Add, Subtract. Use the word FOIL (First, Outside, Inside, Last) to help your child remember the order by which to multiply the terms in a binomial (x+2) (3x-5).