The orange circle on the right looks bigger, but in fact both are the same size. The deception is based on the additional sensory input.

Similarly, the prerequisites for taking algebra are often considered to be basic skills. This is largely an illusion. I routinely encounter students who are referred to me for help as they have been caught in an infinite loop of working on basic math such as number operations (adding, subtracting, multiplication, and division) before moving on to algebra, with limited progress. I am not suggesting basic math skills are not important but am focused on the context of prerequisites needed to engage algebra. Many of the students I have helped who were in this situation. We worked to quickly move them into algebra where they were successful.

One student worked on half a year of 4th grade math during her 7th grade year. During the spring of that 7th grade year and the subsequent summer, I worked with her on algebraic thinking and algebra topics. She successfully completed algebra 1 during her 8th grade year.

The Common Core of State Standards (CCSS) for Math maps out the prerequisites as seen in the CCSS math domains (below). Throughout elementary school, Operations and Algebraic Thinking topics are covered. The Algebraic Thinking standards establish for the students a foundation for algebra taught in middle and high school. A focus of algebra is to model or represent patterns or relationships in real life situations using equations, tables, and graphs. These include quantities modeled by variables.

Below is a break down of this foundation in elementary school. If you are supporting a student in middle or high school who is taking algebra and has major gaps in his or her math education, look to these standards for the essential prerequisite skills.

First Grade: represent situations in word problems by adding or subtracting, and introduce equations (and equal sign).

Second Grade: Represent, solve word problems, introduce multiplication as groups of objects.

Third Grade: represent, solve word problems, explain patterns

Fourth Grade: Solve word problems, generate and analyze patterns

Fifth Grade: Write expressions (equations are 2 expressions with an = in between), analyze patterns and relationships

In working with students with special needs on math programming and services, a common and major issue is that the student is behind and there is a tension between filling in gaps and addressing grade level content. Let me unpack this (pun intended).

There is no single grade level for math, as is the case for reading. Math progression is more like a web, not a line. For example, if a student can do 5th grade geometry but only 3rd grade level fractions, do we average out the grade level math to be 4th grade? (No.) Do we identify the student as working at a 3rd grade level? (No.) 5th grade level? (No.)

Like a suitcase, there is a capacity to the daily time a student has for school services. I often encounter situations in which the services recommended involve the student working on grade level content and catching up on the gaps during support time. If the student has only been learning 75% of the math content each year, he or she needs that support time to help learn the new content to get closer to 100%. There is too much being stuffed into the suitcase. Something has to give.

Use triage to shift focus to the priority topics. For example, the parents of a student in 7th grade but working on math from lower grade levels wanted to pursue a math track that would allow the student to go to community college. I mapped out a long range plan (image below) that focuses on algebra as that is the type of math most likely encountered in a math requirement. Here is another plan which was to prepare a student to possibly work in a field related to cars.

In math, many students with special needs fall behind. What results is a Catch-22 in programming and services. If the student is provided extra time to work on the gaps, he or she likely falls behind with current content. If the student is provided extra time to receive support for current topics, the gaps are not addressed

In both cases the extra support time can actually be counterproductive.

The focus on gaps likely results in the student working on different math topics which in effect means the student has TWO math classes – just what a student with math anxiety doesn’t need.

The focus on current topics means the student is trying to learn math topics for which he or she doesn’t have the prerequisite skills needed.

I recommend identifying the prerequisite skills for a current math topic and address ing these skills concurrently in math support or during the summer. For example, I used a Common Core coherence map (top photo below) to identify Common Core prerequisite standards for the standards a student faces in her upcoming school year. Then I listed these with each grade level standard (bottom photo below). The prerequisite skills can be identified using a task analysis approach as well.

This approach allows for a systematic approach to fill in gaps and to prioritize when they are to be addressed. When implemented effectively, the student can see the immediate benefit of the support time – it helps them in math class. Even better, the support teacher can match instruction and work with what is covered in math class.