Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that can affect your ability to focus and make decisions.
This condition is fairly common. According to estimates from the American Psychiatric Association, around 8.4 percent of children and 2.5 percent of adults live with ADHD.
- concentrate during class
- do repetitive equations
- remember formulas
- keep up with homework
If you have ADHD, you may find your academic performance consistently falls short of what you know you can do. This can feel frustrating, absolutely, but know that it’s not your fault. ADHD is a mental health condition, not a sign of your work ethic or intelligence.
Having ADHD also does not mean you’re doomed to fail math class. In fact, there’s a lot you can do to improve your performance.
Read on to learn more about how ADHD can affect math skills, plus get some guidance on finding support.
So, why do people with ADHD tend to have trouble with math? A few different reasons help explain the connection.
You can think of your working memory as your brain’s copy-paste function. It allows you to hold snippets of information in your head for 15 to 30 seconds.
For example, say you get the equation (1 + 2) x 4.
- First, you’d need to solve for 1 + 2 in the parentheses (3).
- Then, you can multiply 3 x 4 to get the answer (12).
If you have ADHD, you might solve the first step of the problem, then lose your place as you try to remember the order of operations. Or, when you pick the equation back up, you might end up forgetting which number you needed to multiply by 4.
Math, as a general rule, requires close attention to detail.
Consider, for example, minor details like negative signs. If you have ADHD, you may know perfectly well how to add and subtract negative numbers. But if you skim over a negative sign when reviewing a problem, you’ll likely end up with the wrong answer, even when you solve the rest of the problem correctly.
A small 2019 study suggests people with ADHD tend to make more errors when shifting between types of math problems.
Maybe the top half of your exam has division problems and the bottom half has multiplication problems. You might accidentally keep using division rules when the worksheet shifts to multiplication.
The issue isn’t the act of switching itself, but switching quickly between similar tasks. For example, you might find it easier to transition from a math equation to a science question without the same difficulty.
But ADHD can make it difficult to determine the most relevant information for the problem at hand. As you begin to answer multiplication questions, you may still have the division rules floating around in your mind. This distraction can make it hard to remember you’ve moved on to a different type of problem.
Some people with ADHD also find it challenging to parse out phrases with multiple meanings.
Consider, for example, this question: “How many times does 8 fit into 48?”
Written numerically, this question is simply asking: “What’s 48 ÷ 8?”
But according to a
If you had a clear, numeric explanation of what you actually need to solve, you might find it much easier to answer the question correctly.
Statistics from the early 2000s (the most recent available) suggest that 31 percent of students with ADHD also have a math disability. This rate is 5 times higher than the general rate of math disabilities, which falls between 6 and 7 percent. Among students with a math disability, roughly 25 percent also have ADHD.
ADHD can affect your math performance for the reasons noted above. Dyscalculia, on the other hand, makes it more difficult to understand math concepts.
- If you have ADHD, you might know how to add fractions but get distracted as you work through the steps involved.
- If you have dyscalculia, you might have trouble learning how fractions work in the first place.
- If you have both ADHD and dyscalculia, you might find all parts of the process challenging: learning the theory behind fractions and staying focused as you try to solve problems.
Difficulty learning math concepts doesn’t necessarily mean you have a learning disorder. Plenty of people find math hard.
But if you have trouble with everyday mental calculations like counting change or measuring ingredients while cooking, getting a professional evaluation could be a helpful next step.
Wondering how to tell whether your math issues relate to ADHD?
Consider the following signs:
- You understand the basic concepts on your homework and know how to solve the problems. Still, you often get them wrong because you miss small details.
- You tend to mix up basic operations (+, -, x, ÷).
- You often don’t understand what word problems want you to solve for.
- You sometimes lose your place in the middle of a problem and have to start over.
- You often run out of time before finishing all of the questions on a test.
If most of these apply to you, it’s possible ADHD could factor into your math performance. A mental health professional who specializes in ADHD can offer more support with recognizing key signs and creating an effective treatment plan.
Keep in mind, though, that these issues don’t automatically translate to ADHD. You might notice many of them also pop up during exams if you experience test anxiety.
A 2021 study suggests that test anxiety can also affect your working memory and attention, which can have a negative impact on your performance.
Taking steps to address test anxiety can leave you sweating less over your math exams, whether you have ADHD or not.
If you have ADHD, certain accommodations and interventions could help improve your performance, both in math class and at school overall.
Accommodations refer to changes to the academic environment that aim to help offset the effects of ADHD symptoms. For example, a teacher may let you take a test in a different room to reduce distractions.
Common accommodations include:
- Extra time. You have extended homework deadlines and more time to complete tests.
- Reminders. Your teacher reminds you about homework due dates.
- Calculator access. You can use a calculator on certain portions of a test.
- Separate settings. You can take a test alone in a distraction-free area.
- Oral presentation. Your teacher reads test items aloud to you.
Some accommodations may help more than others. For example, a 2020 review suggests oral presentation can have benefits for kids under the age of 14. The benefit was unique to students with ADHD.
Other accommodations, like extra time, can boost test scores for students with ADHD. However, these accommodations can also boost test scores for neurotypical students.
Interventions refer to strategies that aim to help improve both ADHD symptoms and math skills.
Unlike accommodations, they can help improve your overall relationship with math, not just your performance on a specific assignment.
Examples of interventions include:
- Tutoring. If you’re having trouble with math, one-on-one attention from a trained tutor can help.
- Skills training. This intervention can help you learn to study and take tests more effectively. Your trainer may have you highlight important terms in math problems, like “greater than” or “denominator,” so you can better focus on relevant information. You might also go over word problems to practice recognizing what you need to solve.
- Treatment. Professional treatment for ADHD, including therapy, medication, or a combination of the two, can often help improve inattention along with other symptoms. According to a 2020 literature review, ADHD medication appears to help improve academic outcomes overall.
All public K-12 schools are required to provide accommodations to students with disabilities, including ADHD. Any colleges that receive federal funding (and most colleges do) must also offer accommodations.
Just know that accommodations at the university level may not always take the same shape as elementary and secondary school accommodations.
Keep in mind you might not always receive the specific accommodations you request. Your math teacher may opt to give you homework reminders but not extended deadlines, for example.
To learn more about your child’s options for accommodations and interventions, you can start by talking with their classroom teacher.
If you’re a college student, you can begin exploring your options by connecting with your school’s disability support services.
Another helpful step involves getting professional treatment for your ADHD symptoms, math-related and otherwise.
ADHD symptoms often won’t get better without treatment. Therapy, medication, and other approaches can do a lot to reduce symptoms, which can help boost your performance at school and improve daily life.
The sooner you reach out to a professional, the sooner you might begin to notice relief from your symptoms. Know, too, that therapy doesn’t just offer a safe space to get support. A mental health professional can also diagnose ADHD officially, which can be an essential step in requesting accommodations at school.
Math doesn’t come easily to everyone, and many people dislike the subject. But if you have ADHD, you might find math particularly challenging, especially if you also have a math learning disorder.
Consistent trouble with math can easily leave you frustrated and distressed, especially if you’re already trying your best. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up, either. You do have options for getting support and extra help.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.