Using Numicon - a report from a special school

Class teacher Kerrie Coleman gives a personal account of her experiences with Numicon. She explains how she was inspired by a training in Ireland, to devise an individualized programme for her student, Richard. Although he didn't take to the activities straight away, he made slow but steady progress and within six months, his confidence and number skills had rocketed.

Coleman, K. (2003) Using Numicon - a report from a special school. Down Syndrome News and Update, 3(3), 92-93. doi:10.3104/dsupdate.243

Pupil profile

My name is Richard Leonard.

I am 14 years old.

I live in Stamullen.

My favourite food is sausages.

I like listening to music.

My favourite singer is Robbie Williams.

My favourite TV programme is Eastenders.

I love playing football with my friends.

My best friend is Mark Reilly.

I am in Pre-senior with Mrs Coleman and Mrs Callan.


In the spring of 2002 I heard about Numicon from a parent of one of my pupils, Richard, who also happened to have Down syndrome. I was seeking any information on Maths materials which could help children with Down syndrome as this had been an area where Richard had been having difficulty and appeared to be making little or no progress at all.

At this stage Richard was almost 13. He was assessed as having "Moderate Learning Difficulties" with his intellectual functioning placed in the Moderate General Learning Disability range.

Our experiences:

I attended a Numicon workshop in Slane, Co. Meath, organised through Down Syndrome Ireland and facilitated by Vikki Horner. From this workshop I was left feeling inspired by Vikki's work with her own daughter using the Numicon system and couldn't wait to test out this equipment on Richard. I felt that this innovative approach to teaching number would certainly hold the key to Richard's achievement in Maths! I returned to school full of enthusiasm for the potential of Numicon, not just for children with Richard's specific needs, but for other pupils in our school with mild learning difficulties. Following discussion with Richard's mother, we decided to begin using Numicon in school first and then to follow up with home reinforcement of the activities we covered, once we got into the swing of things!

In September 2002 we began! Richard started Numicon activities every morning with his Special Needs Assistant (SNA) under my close supervision. At first this took place in the classroom, but later in a separate room, due to the distractions of a noisy and busy classroom, which affected Richard's concentration. Initially it was not easy - Richard had difficulty handling the equipment and would become easily frustrated, tired and fed up after only short sessions using the equipment. I had naively thought that he would take to it straight away and that progress would be swift! Having experienced the evidence of Vikki Horner's success with her own daughter, I had thought this would be the case for Richard! I did not realise how individual our approach to Numicon needed to be to suit Richard's own learning needs. This proved to be instrumental in Richard's success - tailoring the Numicon approach to Richard.

Richard 'finding the missing number' with his SNA, Grainne Finglas.

Richard 'finding the missing number' with his SNA, Grainne Finglas.

We set simple targets for each week and made sure we kept to the same routine, time span and set of activities every day. This mattered for Richard's feeling of confidence and security. Familiarity is very important to him. We kept a working log/diary of each week's activities, highlighting difficulties and successes. We also kept a copy for communicating with home for comments on any difficulties that were occurring and where we could offer additional support. This was a vital link. We were not afraid to adapt and make changes where necessary.

From September to mid-term break in October we worked on Numicon in school only, focusing on the first four activities. Following mid-term break Richard began reinforcement of these activities at home and we began working on activities 6 to 10 in school. Each day we revised the first four and then would focus on the new activity for a week at a time (or longer if necessary) until Richard had confidently grasped the concept of the task. Although I felt he was doing well, progress did appear to be very slow and quite minimal at this stage - we just kept going!

Following the Christmas holidays we were up to activity number 7 - so it had taken us from September to get this far. We were not sure whether this was in keeping with other children whose needs were similar to Richard. We did not really know what to expect, but kept on with our structured routine and schedule. Richard certainly seemed to be enjoying the activities and his self-esteem and confidence were improving. By February, Richard's abilities with Numicon began to take off - it was almost as if the penny had dropped and he took off like a rocket! Since then there has been no stopping him. We are amazed at what he has achieved, considering his number ability before we began using Numicon. He has worked through the remaining activities of the Foundation Stage with terrific speed and accuracy and confidently completes addition and subtraction tasks using his Numicon shapes both in his written and oral work. We could not have imagined the progress he has made using Numicon. He is truly a success story through following the Numicon approach to number. I feel that his confidence and delight in achieving in Numicon has had a positive affect in all areas of Richard's school life. There has been visible improvement in both his ability to follow instructions and his concentration levels.

All credit to Richard for working so hard with both his SNA and myself - we are all very proud of him for all he has accomplished in this school year. I do feel that only for the great partnership between school and home (his very supportive Mum and helper Trish), he would not have succeeded so well. For us it has been a team effort!

Our experience of Numicon in a Special School setting has been very positive and we continue to be excited by the potential to succeed in number work which it holds for pupils like Richard, who need an extra helping hand along the road to school success!

We are currently using Numicon with different pupils within our range of 'Mild Learning Difficulties' and are finding it an effective approach to number work. We will look forward to hearing about other school's experiences with Numicon. We hope they are as positive as ours have been in helping pupils like Richard realise their full potential. It may not suit all children, but for Richard it has been the key to his mathematical success!

This article was previously published in Footsteps Magazine Summer 2003 (a publication of Footsteps - Down Syndrome Ireland), and is reproduced with permission.

Number resources

The following items are available from The Down Syndrome Educational Trust's online shop at

  • Number skills for individuals with Down syndrome - An overview. By Gillian Bird and Sue Buckley (2001). Portsmouth, UK: The Down Syndrome Educational Trust. ISBN: 1-903806-13-5. ]
  • Number skills development for infants with Down syndrome (0-5 years). By Gillian Bird (2001). Portsmouth, UK: The Down Syndrome Educational Trust. ISBN: 1-903806-14-3. ]
  • Number skills development for children with Down syndrome (5-11 years). By Gillian Bird and Sue Buckley (2001). Portsmouth, UK: Down Syndrome Education International. ISBN: 1-903806-15-1. ]
  • Number skills development for teenagers with Down syndrome (11-16 years). By Gillian Bird and Sue Buckley (2002). Portsmouth, UK: Down Syndrome Education International. ISBN: 1-903806-16-X. ]

Numicon kits

  • 'At Home' Teaching Kit
  • Foundation Kit
  • Year 1 Kit, for schools or single users
  • Year 2 Kit, for schools or single users
  • Foundation Plus pack