My son, who is in grade 1, has really good number sense. He has a lot of mental math strategies that he uses efficiently and flexibly. He adds on, he counts back, he finds landmark numbers, he even splits numbers! And no, this is not because we spend a bunch of time every day drilling math. It’s because we play lots of games and have math conversations that pop up throughout our day.

As I watched him play “Sorry” I was surprised that he was having some counting trouble. He has been able to count in sequential order with one-to-one tagging for quite some time. He can count a variety of object by ones, more than 100, and when he makes a mistake he notices it on his own and fixes it. He subitizes, and I feel like this what he is doing while he counts and that his how he notices his own mistakes. But that’s a tangent I won’t go on right now.

What surprised me as we were playing “Sorry” this week was the trouble he was having moving his pawn the correct number of spaces on the board. He recognizes every number in this game, and connects the number symbol with the amount. He’s done this with other games many times, such as when we play other games and he has to compare which of two numbers is larger. (I had a hard time writing that sentence because I kept thinking about how we haven’t played War in a long time!) When he drew 5, for example, I know he knows that is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

When he would draw a number he would count to that number as he bounced his pawn around the board, but invariably any time he had a number higher than 3 he would bounce a different number of spaces. Sometimes he would go fewer than he was allowed, and sometimes he would go farther than he was allowed. If you draw a 4 in this game, you have to go backward, and he did OK with that but he would count slower than usual, so I built that into my intervention. I told him about the problem. “Just like when you are counting things, your pawn has to touch each square when you count it.” I started by putting his hand in mine, and making sure that every bounce had his pawn landing in just one box without skipping any boxes. After several rounds of this, he started doing it on his own. He would slow down his counting and he’d land in the right spot.

The next day we played again, and the problem resurfaced. This time I explained the problem to him, then instead of holding his hand I put a finger on the square as he counted. If he got ahead of me, or skipped a square, he would recognize this on his own and correct himself (and sometimes his big sister had to butt in and point out his mistake, but that’s a different post altogether!)

The third time we played the game, he needed a verbal reminder, but that was it. And the fourth time he needed the verbal reminder. And if we have time to play it again tomorrow, which I hope we will, I expect he’ll need the reminder again, but I’ll wait and see.

This whole thing has surprised me some, mainly because as I said before he knows how to count with one-to-one tagging and has for a while. So why was he having trouble? This is what I think: there was a little pressure on him this time that isn’t normally there. First, he loves to win and he knew that winning in this game requires getting around the board quickly. That was a distraction and a stressor when he was trying to count. Second, besides just counting, there was some other thinking that had to happen. If you land on a square with a triangle you get to slide, and if you land on a square that already has a pawn on it then you say “Sorry!” and bump that pawn back to start, and sometimes I could see that he was making a move with one pawn while also thinking about how maybe he should actually be moving a different pawn to get a better outcome. He’d be in the middle of a move, suddenly stop, put the pawn back where it was and move a different one instead. Third, …I don’t actually have a third. I think those two things are enough to explain why he was having some trouble. I did double check to make sure he was wearing his glasses the first time I noticed it, and he was, so we can’t blame the vision. And his coordination is such that moving a pawn around the board is not a physical difficulty for him.

Counting is such an interesting thing, isn’t it? I feel like I have some new insight into him as a mathematician. I have since noticed that he also needs reminders to slow down when he is doing calculations. He also does a better job when it is just me and him and he doesn’t have to worry about his sister butting in with answers. (Are you noticing a theme here? It’s hard to be the little brother!) Finally, he does a much better job and enjoys the whole thing more when he can do single step problems. I feel like that last part is developmental and will work itself out over time.

My diagnosis is that there is an executive functioning thing going on. He is using his working memory to do multiple tasks each time he takes a turn, not the least of which is to manage his emotions around the fact that his big sister is always butting in.

I am, of course, thinking about how to help my son with this particular thing. But what does this look like in a classroom? I’m thinking it would be useful to sit down with a few of my students and play a round of “Sorry” or “Trouble” or even “Snakes and Ladders” and really play with them. They do these sort of things sometimes during indoor recess, but if I were to set this as an activity during class it would be so a group of children would be busy while I work on the real math with other kids.

Time to rethink that practice.