Mathematics Interventions: What Strategies Work for Struggling Students?

September 2019
illustration of students in a boat

According to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, two-thirds of eighth-grade students performed at or below a basic level of proficiency in mathematics. In addition, over 90 percent of eighth-grade students with disabilities performed at or below basic levels of proficiency in mathematics. These statistics stress the importance of engaging in solid teaching practice to support students who are struggling in math and students with learning disabilities.

Based on our review of the research in this area, effective math teaching practice often incorporates strategies that include:

  • Systematic and explicit instruction
  • Visual representation of functions and relationships, such as manipulatives, pictures and graphs
  • Peer-assisted instruction
  • Ongoing, formative assessment

Our librarians recently gathered these readily available, research-based resources that provide insight to teachers on what works when teaching math to struggling learners and students with learning disabilities.

Institute of Education Sciences (IES) Practice Guide

Assisting Students Struggling with Mathematics: Response to Intervention for Elementary and Middle Schools (2009)

This practice guide provides eight recommendations to help teachers, principals and school administrators to identify students who need assistance in mathematics and to address the needs of these students through focused interventions. Each recommendation has practical suggestions for implementation.

Studies Focused on Teaching Practice

Intensive Intervention in Mathematics (2015)

Intensive intervention is an individualized, demanding and concentrated approach to instruction. This article presents the evidence-based elements of intensive intervention that teachers should consider when planning for, implementing and monitoring intensive intervention in mathematics.

Math Education Practices for Students with Disabilities and Other Struggling Learners: Case Studies of Six Schools in Two Northeast and Islands Region States (2008)

This report describes in-depth practices at six schools that are making targeted efforts to improve math education for students with disabilities and other struggling learners. It examines each school's practices for improving the math learning of all students as well as specific supports for students with disabilities and other struggling learners and identifies the challenges that schools face to serve students with diverse needs.

Mathematics Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities or Difficulty Learning Mathematics: A Guide for Teachers (2008)

This guide describes seven effective instructional practices for teaching mathematics to K–12 students with learning disabilities that were identified in the Center on Instruction’s synthesis of intervention research, and also incorporates recommendations from "The Final Report of The National Mathematics Advisory Panel."

Taking the Guesswork out of Locating Evidence‐Based Mathematics Practices for Diverse Learners (2016)

This paper provides guidance to educators seeking out the latest scientifically based research to improve the likelihood of improving mathematics performance for students with mathematics disabilities and to give teachers a degree of confidence on the effectiveness of their instruction.

Additional Resources

What Evidence-Based Mathematics Practices Can Teachers Employ?

This resource from the Iris Center covers several research-backed strategies for teaching students who struggle in math. Sections include explicit instruction, visual representations, schema instruction, metacognitive strategies and effective classroom practices.

Mathematics for Students With Learning Disabilities From Language-Minority Backgrounds: Recommendations for Teaching

This article examines characteristics and cultural and linguistic factors relevant to mathematics instruction of students with learning disabilities from language-minority backgrounds. Recommendations and strategies are introduced with attention given to balancing the influences of language, culture and disability. Specific recommendations relate to:

  • Appraising math ability
  • Selecting the language of instruction
  • Moving from concrete to abstract understanding
  • Using strategies that help students develop mathematical concepts
  • Using math for language development
  • Taking student strengths into consideration
10 Key Mathematics Practices for All Elementary Schools

This brief resource lists concepts and examples for teaching math based on evidence of effectiveness from high-quality research. You can also download the accompanying 10 Key Math Practices for All Middle and High Schools.

Additional Research

Specific Learning Disability in Mathematics: A Comprehensive Review (2018)

This article reviews the changing terminology for specific learning disabilities in math and describes the emerging genetics and brain research that relate to individuals with math disabilities. It is important to maintain a developmental perspective on math disabilities, as presentation changes with age, instruction and the different models (educational and medical) of identification. Intervention requires a systematic approach to screening and remediation that has evolved with more evidence-based literature.

A Guide for Evaluating the Mathematics Programs Used by Special Education Teachers (2018)

This article provides special education teachers with a practical guide for assessing and evaluating the extent to which mathematics programs contain validated principles of explicit mathematics instruction. An example illustrates how teachers can apply the evaluation guide and use the results to address potential instructional shortfalls of mathematics programs.