Shawn is a 4th grader who enjoys school, gets along well with his classmates, and loves class discussions. He is good at reading and writing stories. Math, on the other hand, is beginning to be a problem. Shawn can remember his multiplication tables when he says them in order (5 x 1, 5 x 2, 5 x 3, etc.), but he struggles to recall these facts when he is solving a problem, especially a word problem.

When Shawn reads a word problem he doesn’t know where to start. What’s more, once he has begun a problem, he can’t seem to remember what to do in the middle, and can’t recognize when he’s seen the same type of problem before.

Shawn understands concepts of measurement (for example, which is bigger a cup or pint) while his teacher is explaining them, but has trouble when he needs to apply the concepts.

Before this year, Shawn had always looked forward to math class, especially when his teacher used any kind of hands-on activities. Now that Shawn is having trouble in math, he is becoming more and more anxious, and has even told his teacher that he thinks he is “dumb” because he can’t figure out his math homework.

Shawn loves to draw by hand or on the computer. He easily figured out how to use the drawing program on the computer, but has had trouble learning to type and using the computer for writing stories. No matter how he tries he just can’t remember where the right keys are.

Shawn also loves dogs, and last week during free reading time, he read an entire encyclopedia section on dogs.

Shawn can’t quite decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He changes his mind each week, about whether he wants to be an architect or veterinarian.

Shawn’s father is worried about how much Shawn has begun to hate math. He knows that at the end of year his son will need to take a state math test before he can go on to fifth grade. Shawn’s father has said that unless Shawn starts to improve in math, he will have to spend time getting extra help instead of playing the drums in the school band.


  • Drawing
  • Reading
  • Writing


  • Learning about dogs
  • Playing the drums
  • Drawing on the computer and by hand

Areas in need of improvement:

  • Automatization of basic math facts
  • Recognizing patterns in multiplication tables and word problems
  • Applying concepts learned in class when taking tests and doing homework
  • Typing on the computer

Possible Management Plan:

Talk to Shawn about the trouble he is having in math. Help him understand that he is not “dumb,” and that everyone has areas of strength and weakness. Point out, too, that just as adults aren’t expected to be an expert in everything, neither are children. Discuss Shawn’s strengths with him, and ask him to help decide which strategies will help him in math class. In addition, involve Shawn’s parents in your plan. Talk to Shawn’s father about strategies Shawn can use at home that will allow him to continue to play in the band.

Taking Advantage of Strengths and Affinities:

  • Set up a ‘math mentor’ for Shawn, for example, a professional in the community who uses math in his work. Based on Shawn’s interests, a local architect or veterinarian might talk with him about how she uses math in her job.
  • Make use of Shawn’s affinity for architecture and drawing on the computer by having him design semantic maps to represent math concepts.
  • Organize a math project around Shawn’s interest in dogs. For example, have Shawn create a survey about the kinds of dogs owned by people in the school or neighborhood, and then use the computer to make graphs and tables to illustrate the results of his research. Or, ask him to design a “dream dog house,” calculating how much wood and materials would be needed to build it.

Accommodations and Interventions:

  • Have Shawn think of at least three different ways to represent the information he is learning in math class. For example, he can visualize it (create a picture in his mind), describe it (create an image using words), and use it in a hands-on project (create a concrete model or example). Have the class brainstorm ways to represent the information differently. Have Shawn keep a personal math vocabulary and concept dictionary that he can refer to when necessary.
  • Provide ongoing opportunities for Shawn to review math concepts. For example, hold a weekly review session where Shawn jots down a description of concepts he is working on that week, with examples of how those concepts are applied in math problem solving, how they are related to previously learned math concepts, what practical uses the concepts have, etc.
  • To help Shawn recognize the patterns in different math situations and the rules associated with each pattern, use concrete objects, drawings, check marks, etc. to illustrate math rules whenever possible. This can help Shawn associate an abstract process with a visual image, and begin to recognize that rules in math (such as multiplication tables) are based on patterns.
  • Incorporate multi-sensory activities into the teaching and memorizing of math facts. For example, to help Shawn recall his multiplication tables out of order (6 x 7, 9 x 4, 2 x 5, etc.), have him “write it”, “say it”, “sing it”, “do it”, etc.. Until Shawn can quickly and easily recall facts, let him refer to a math fact table while solving word problems.
  • Have Shawn solve word problems in stages. Give him word problems that have extra information in them. First, have Shawn read a word problem and cross off all of the information he does not need to solve the problem. Second, have him re-write the important information in the problem in the order that he will need to solve it. Third, have him write down his plan for a solution. Finally, have Shawn solve the problem.
  • Have Shawn use computer software programs to practice applying math concepts as well as to reinforce math sub-skills. Incorporate tutorial programs that are interactive and dynamic to help make abstract concepts more understandable and concrete.
  • Allow Shawn to see models of math problem solving strategies. For example, teachers and students can talk out loud as they solve problems. Assign math problems to be solved in small groups. This will help Shawn hear how his peers use the relevant terms and come to solutions. Include problems that require pictures or other hand-drawn solutions, to allow Shawn to be the expert of the group. Or suggest that Shawn might present the findings to the class.