Skip to content

Everyone Has Something to ADD! Teaching mathematics to students with significant cognitive disabilities

Group of people attending a math workshop around a table

Everyone Has Something to ADD!

Teaching mathematics to students with significant cognitive disabilities

The Division of Early Intervention and Special Education Services, under the leadership of Marcella E. Franczkowski, hosted Everyone Has Something to ADD! with national expert Dr. Jenny Root on March 5 & 6, 2019. Over 150 Maryland teachers attended the mathematics conference which highlighted a model for teaching students with significant cognitive disabilities to become independent mathematical problem solvers. Dr. Root’s presentation included theory and best practice, hands-on application, and lesson planning. After the conference, Nancy Schmitt interviewed Dr. Root to explore the central themes of her presentation.

Nancy Schmitt: Why is it important to teach mathematical concepts to students with significant cognitive disabilities? 

Dr. Jenny Root: Just as literacy is critical, problem-solving is a fundamental means of developing mathematical knowledge at all levels. Students with significant cognitive disabilities have difficulty with problem-solving in part due to their capacity to identify elements of the problem-solving process and using the components to solve problems. There is a need to teach problem-solving skills to students with significant cognitive disabilities that moves beyond basic rote skills and promotes independence, self-monitoring, and vocational skills. Learning to problem solve can lead to a range of career, leisure, and daily living opportunities.

NS: How do you ensure that the math standards are meaningful to students with significant cognitive disabilities?

JR: Prioritizing the mathematics standards is the first step, which Maryland has done through the Core Content Connectors. Once the standards have been prioritized, the teacher should consider real-world applications to contextualize instruction. Providing math instruction within a context will show the students when they will use the skill and leads to generalization across all content areas. The goal is for students to apply these skills in daily living, leisure, and employment.

For example, a student may have transition goals related to budgeting money. Within a unit on solving algebraic equations, the teacher could contextualize the standard within budgeting by having students identify activities or items they want to purchase and how many hours of employment it would take to earn enough money to cover the purchase (e.g., How many hours of working would it take to purchase a $60 concert ticket if you make $9.00 per hour?). This contextualized instruction would not only address the math standard, but it would build self-determination and personal finance skills.

NS: How does learning problem-solving lead to successful post-school outcomes?

JR: Problem-solving is an essential skill as are functional life skills such as shopping and cooking. Problem-solving uses the same processes that naturally build self-determination, social, and independent living skills. Research shows that these skills influence post-school outcomes, therefore, developing math and problem-solving skills is vital for all students, including students with significant cognitive disabilities.

Nancy Schmitt, M.S.Ed. Is the Alternate Instructional Assessment Specialist in the Division of Early Intervention and Special Education Services at the Maryland State Department of Education. For more information, please contact her at

Related content