I was recently asked by a parent if it was an issue if her 12 year old special needs child was using her fingers to count. Many of you may be asking the same question even with your neuro-typical child, so I thought I would shed some light on the subject.
As a math specialist I worked with a lot of different students and have been surprised throughout my years as to how many still need to use their fingers. It is interesting to note that the area of the brain in the motor cortex where the fingers are is very close to areas of counting. Personally, when I don't feel like thinking, I will still use my fingers, but I definitely can compute without them. Using fingers can release some of the areas of the brain in order to do other types of thinking. So, for example, lets say that the problem a child has to solve is a bit difficult, well, they might use their fingers in order to focus on the hard parts and not use precious brain real estate for something like computing. So, at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves what we value.
Does the child understand what subtraction is, can s/he model it with manipulatives (including regrouping rather than just a memorized procedure), etc. If so, then there is meaning around what s/he is doing. If then, you want to put effort in making sure that s/he is able to compute, then you can do that using flash cards or using tasks such as part-part-whole activities where you you have X cubes and put some in a paper bag and s/he has to guess how many is in the bag based off of what they see is still out. These and other activities can be found in my book, A Qualitative and Quantitative Developmental Assessment and Intervention Protocol.
A good website for just improving basic facts is Xtramath.com. It is free to use and it tests what the student knows and then gives daily practice based on what they need to learn.
Lisa Ann de Garcia, MA, MEd.