by Amanda Morin, at Understood.org
What You’ll Learn Below
*What is dyscalculia? *How common is dyscalculia? *What causes dyscalculia? *What are the symptoms of dyscalculia? *What skills are affected by dyscalculia?
*How is dyscalculia diagnosed? *What conditions are related to dyscalculia? *How can professionals help with dyscalculia? *What can be done at home for dyscalculia? *What can make the journey easier?
[at the bottom of this piece, see a link to the source, which has its own links to her citations]
If you’ve been told your child may have dyscalculia, or if you suspect your child has it, you may wonder how to help him. Dyscalculia is a learning issue that causes serious math difficulties. It isn’t as well-known as dyslexia. However, some researchers now think it may be almost as common.
Fortunately, there are many ways you and teachers can help your child. Whether it’s strengthening math skills or boosting his self-esteem, there are steps you can take.
What is dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia is a brain-based condition that makes it hard to make sense of numbers and math concepts. Some kids with dyscalculia can’t grasp basic number concepts. They work hard to learn and memorize basic number facts. They may know what to do in math class but don’t understand why they’re doing it. In other words, they miss the logic behind it.
Other kids understand the logic behind the math but aren’t sure how and when to apply their knowledge to solving problems.
Dyscalculia goes by many names. Some public schools refer to it as a “mathematics learning disability.” Doctors sometimes call it a “mathematics disorder.” Many kids and parents call it “math dyslexia.”
Your child’s struggle with math can be confusing, especially if he’s doing well in other subjects. This can lead to anxiety and low self-esteem. But parents have the power to change that equation.
There are many tools and strategies that can help with dyscalculia. The trick is finding the ones that work best for your child. Dyscalculia is a lifelong condition, but that doesn’t mean your child can’t be happy and successful.
Number Sense and Other Difficulties
Dyscalculia can affect many different areas of math learning and performance. Different kids have different challenges.
The most common problem is with “number sense.” This is an intuitive understanding of how numbers work, and how to compare and estimate quantities on a number line. Most researchers agree that number sense is at the core of math learning. If kids don’t understand the basics about how numbers work, learning math and using it every day can be very frustrating.
Studies show that even babies have a basic sense of numbers. Dr. Brian Butterworth, a leading researcher in dyscalculia, compares number sense to being color-blind. He says some people are born with number blindness. This makes it hard to tell the difference between quantities.
Number blindness is one reason many kids have trouble connecting numbers to the real world. They can’t grasp the idea that “five cookies” has the same number of objects as “five cakes” and “five apples.”
How common is dyscalculia?
If you hadn’t heard of dyscalculia until recently, you’re not alone. It isn’t as widely discussed as dyslexia, and it’s not as well understood. However, some researchers are beginning to think it may be almost as common as dyslexia.[3,4]
It isn’t clear how often kids identified with dyslexia would also meet the criteria for dyscalculia. Both conditions can affect a child’s ability to understand math-related words.
Scientists can’t say for sure how many children or adults have dyscalculia. This is partly because different groups of researchers use different criteria for what counts as severe math difficulties. There is no central data bank for the research data on dyscalculia. That makes it hard to estimate how many people it affects.
An estimated 6 to 7 percent of elementary school children may have dyscalculia. It’s not uncommon for kids to have more than one learning issue. In fact, 56 percent of kids with a reading disorder also have poor math achievement. And 43 percent of kids with a math disability have poor reading skills.
The good news is that all of these children can excel in other areas.
What causes dyscalculia?
Researchers don’t know exactly what causes dyscalculia. But they’ve identified certain factors that indicate it’s a brain-based condition.
Here are some of the possible causes of dyscalculia:
- Genes and heredity: Studies of dyscalculia show it’s more common in some families. Researchers have found that a child with dyscalculia often has a parent or sibling with similar math issues. So dyscalculia may be genetic.
- Brain development: Researchers are using modern brain imaging tools to study the brains of people with and without math issues. What we learn from this research will help us understand how to help kids with dyscalculia. The study also found differences in the surface area, thickness and volume of parts of the brain. Those areas are linked to learning and memory, setting up and monitoring tasks and remembering math facts.
- Environment: Dyscalculia has been linked to exposure to alcohol in the womb. Prematurity and low birth weight may also play a role in dyscalculia.
- Brain injury: Studies show that injury to certain parts of the brain can result in what researchers call “acquired dyscalculia.”
For children with dyscalculia, it’s unclear how much their brain differences are shaped by genetics and how much by their experiences.
Researchers are trying to learn if certain interventions for dyscalculia can “rewire” a child’s brain to make math easier. This concept is known as “neuroplasticity” and has been shown to work in people with dyslexia.
What are the symptoms of dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia includes different kinds of math difficulties. Your child’s symptoms may not look exactly like those in another child. Observing your child and taking notes to share with teachers and doctors are good ways to find the best strategies and supports for your child.
The signs of dyscalculia also look different at different ages. Dyscalculia tends to become more apparent as kids get older. But it can be detected as early as preschool. Here’s what to look for:
Warning Signs in Preschool or Kindergarten
- Has trouble learning to count, especially when it comes to assigning each object in a group a number
- Has trouble recognizing number symbols, such as making the connection between “7” and the word seven
- Struggles to connect a number to a real-life situation, such as knowing that “3” can apply to any group that has three things in it—3 cookies, 3 cars, 3 kids, etc.
- Has trouble remembering numbers, and skips numbers long after kids the same age can count numbers and remember them in the right order
- Finds it hard to recognize patterns and sort items by size, shape or color
- Avoids playing popular games like Candy Land that involve numbers, counting and other math concepts
Warning Signs in Grade School or Middle School
- Has trouble recognizing numbers and symbols
- Has difficulty learning and recalling basic math facts, such as 2 + 4 = 6
- Struggles to identify +, ‒ and other signs and use them correctly
- May still use fingers to count instead of using more sophisticated strategies
- Has trouble writing numerals clearly or putting them in the correct column
- Has trouble coming up with a plan to solve a math problem
- Struggles to understand words related to math, such as greater than and less than
- Has trouble telling his left from his right, and has a poor sense of direction
- Has difficulty remembering phone numbers and game scores
- Avoids playing games like Risk that involve number strategy
- Has trouble telling time
Warning Signs in High School
- Struggles to apply math concepts to everyday life, including money matters such as estimating the total cost, making exact change and figuring out a tip
- Has trouble measuring things, like ingredients in a simple recipe
- Struggles with finding his way around and worries about getting lost
- Has hard time grasping information shown on graphs or charts
- Has trouble finding different approaches to the same math problem
- Lacks confidence in activities that require estimating speed and distance, such as playing sports and learning to drive
What skills are affected by dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia affects more than your child’s ability to handle math class and homework. Math skills and concepts are used everywhere from the kitchen to the playground to the workplace.
It’s understandable if you’re concerned about the long-term impact of dyscalculia on your child’s life. But once you identify your child’s weaknesses, you can find ways to work around them by building on strengths. Here are some everyday skills and activities your child may find difficult:
- Social skills: Failing repeatedly in math class can lead your child to assume failure is inevitable in other areas too. Low self-esteem can affect your child’s willingness to make new friends or participate in afterschool activities. He might also avoid playing games and sports that involve math and keeping score.
- Sense of direction: Your child might have trouble learning left from right. He may have trouble getting places by reading maps or following directions. Some kids with dyscalculia can’t picture things in their minds. Does your child have trouble imagining how a building or other three-dimensional object would look if viewed from another angle? If so, he may worry about getting lost when changing classes, riding a bike or driving a car.
- Physical coordination: Dyscalculia can affect how the brain and eyes work together. So your child may have trouble judging distances between objects. He may seem clumsier than other kids the same age.
- Money management: Dyscalculia can make it difficult to stick to a budget, balance a checkbook and estimate costs. It can also make it hard to calculate a tip and count exact change.
- Time management: Dyscalculia can affect your child’s ability to measure quantities, including units of time. Your child may have trouble estimating how long a minute is or keeping track of how much time has passed. This can make it hard to stick to a schedule.
- Other skills: A child may have trouble figuring out how much of an ingredient to use in a recipe. He might have a hard time estimating how fast another car is moving or how far away it is.
How is dyscalculia diagnosed?
If your child is having trouble with math, it’s a good idea to find out exactly what’s going on so you and your child’s teachers can figure out how to help. Less research has been done on dyscalculia than on some other learning issues. That makes identifying the problem more complicated.
Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to make the process easier. You and your child’s teachers can talk and keep notes about what types of things your child has trouble doing or understanding. Those notes will come in handy when you speak to your child’s doctor or other health-care providers about what’s worrying you.
There’s no one specific test for dyscalculia. This means getting a diagnosis can involve several steps:
Step 1: Get a medical exam. A medical exam isn’t as formal as it sounds. It’s just you, your child and the pediatrician sitting down to talk about your concerns. Together you’ll make a plan to find out if other medical conditions are contributing to your child’s learning difficulties.
Math issues are common in kids who have certain genetic disorders, in kids who were born early and small, and in those with ADHD. If your child has ADHD, it can be harder to tell whether his math issues are caused by dyscalculia, ADHD or both.
Part of the initial medical exam can be done in the pediatrician’s office. The doctor may refer you to a specialist such as a neurologist or educational psychologist for more in-depth testing. Once doctors have ruled out or identified medical problems, you can take the next step.
Step 2: See an educational professional. Look for a professional who is trained to give tests to determine which math skills your child has trouble with. This might be a school psychologist, or a private psychologist or other professional.
If you’re not given a referral, you can ask about getting one. This is important because even if your child has another condition, such as ADHD, your child may also have dyscalculia. Knowing which symptoms are part of which condition will make it easier to find the most effective strategies for your child.
The psychologist will talk to you about what struggles you’re seeing and will look over your child’s medical and school records. He may also ask your child to:
- Count some dots. Some tests, like the Dyscalculia Screener developed by Dr. Brian Butterworth, use dot-counting exercises to get insights into a child’s number sense.
- Count backwards. One frequently used test is the Neuropsychological Test Battery for Number Processing and Calculation in Children (NUCALC). It asks children to count backwards and do other number exercises that involve writing or talking. Don’t let the word “neuropsychological” scare you. It simply means that this test gives professionals a better idea how your child’s brain thinks about and makes sense of math.
- Ask your child to copy shapes or draw them from memory. Several different screening tools can test how your child sees and understands shapes. If, for example, your child has a rectangle-shaped block in front of him but can’t pick out a card that shows the same block from a different angle, it may indicate trouble with visual-spatial skills.
- Observe your child in the classroom. Many professionals will want to see how your child interacts with math concepts in everyday settings. Ask if the specialist will observe your child at school.
It’s always a good idea to prepare your child for his session with the educational psychologist. You might explain that the doctor will play some games with him. Assure him that he won’t get a “good” or “bad” grade. The doctor just wants to get to know him better.
If the doctor plans to observe your child at school, consult with the doctor and teacher about how this will be explained to your child and his classmates. Thoughtful preparation can help your child relax and be himself.
Step 3: Put it all together. After examining your child, the psychologist and pediatrician will look at the information gathered. Some psychologists will feel comfortable giving you an informal opinion right away. Others may want to wait until they’ve scored the tests.
If the psychologist wants to wait, ask for an idea of how long it will be before the formal report is ready. Consider scheduling an appointment to come back and go over the results. Having this appointment on the professional’s calendar may help make sure the report is completed in that time frame.
If your child is found to have dyscalculia, you may want to talk with the school about getting an Individualized Education Program (IEP). That program will detail all the different things the school will do to help your child learn math in ways that make the most sense for him.
What conditions are related to dyscalculia?
It isn’t unusual for kids to be diagnosed with dyscalculia and another medical condition. Doctors refer to co-existing conditions as being “comorbid.” Certain conditions can easily be confused for dyscalculia because they have some of the same symptoms.
Conditions that often exist with—or are misdiagnosed as—dyscalculia are:
- Dyslexia: Children are often diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia. Researchers have found that 43–65 percent of kids with math disabilities also have reading disabilities.
- ADHD: Children are often diagnosed with dyscalculia and ADHD. But some math errors can be explained by inattention to detail and other characteristics of ADHD. So some experts recommend reevaluating math skills after getting ADHD symptoms under control.
- Math anxiety: Children with math anxiety are so worried about the prospect of doing math that their fear and nervousness can lead to poor performance on math tests. Some kids may have both math anxiety and dyscalculia.
- Genetic disorders: Dyscalculia is associated with several genetic disorders including fragile X syndrome, Gerstmann’s syndrome and Turner’s syndrome.
How can professionals help with dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia isn’t as well-known as other learning issues, such as dyslexia. You may need to be persistent to get schools and doctors to take a closer look at your child’s struggles with math.
Here are people who can help:
Your Child’s Teachers
If your child has been identified with dyscalculia and is eligible for special education services, you and the school will come up with a plan of supports and accommodations. These may include giving extra time for tests or letting your child use a calculator.
But even without a diagnosis, your child’s school can do several things to help your child succeed.
- Response to intervention (RTI) is a program some schools use to provide extra help to students who are falling behind. If your child’s school uses RTI, routine screenings identify which kids need to bone up on certain skills. Then those children will receive small-group instruction either within or outside of their regular classroom. If your child who doesn’t make enough progress in a small group, then the program will give your child more intensive one-on-one instruction.
- Informal supports are strategies teachers often use to help struggling students. Enlisting the support of your child’s teacher is an important step. Set up a meeting to talk about your mutual concerns. Ask if the teacher is willing to keep a journal of how your child responds to different strategies or math-related activities.
You can do the same at home and compare notes. Here are some common strategies teachers use to help kids with dyscalculia:
- Using concrete examples that connect math to real life, to strengthen your child’s number sense. Examples: sorting buttons or other familiar objects.
- Using visual aids when solving problems, including drawing pictures or moving around physical objects—which teachers refer to as “manipulatives.”
- Assigning manageable amounts of work so your child won’t feel overloaded.
- Reviewing a recently learned skill before moving on to a new one, and explaining how the skills are related.
- Supervising work and encouraging your child to talk through the problem-solving process. This can help make sure he’s using the right math rules and formulas.
- Breaking new lessons into smaller parts that easily show how different skills relate to the new concept. Teachers call this process “chunking.”
- Letting your child use graph paper to help keep numbers lined up.
- Using an extra piece of paper to cover up most of what’s on a math test so your child can focus on one problem at a time.
- Playing math-related games designed to help your child have fun and feel more comfortable with math.
After trying some informal accommodations, you or the school may recommend getting a 504 plan. This is a written plan detailing how the school will accommodate your child’s needs. Accommodations can include things like letting a child:
- Have more time to take a test.
- Answer fewer questions on a test.
- Record lessons and lectures.
- Use a calculator in class.
Another option is to have your child evaluated for special education services. This will determine whether your child qualifies for an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
An IEP gives you access to more resources, such as assistive technology to help with calculating and other math skills. Either you or the school can request an evaluation.
A tutor can work with your child individually or in a small group. This can help your child focus on mastering the basics and practice skills. A tutor may be able to come up with alternative ways to help your child understand and use math concepts.
Your Child’s Doctor
Sometimes dyscalculia can take such a toll on your child’s self-esteem that anxiety and depression can set in. Talk to your pediatrician about your concerns. A psychologist or other mental health professional might be able to help your child—and you—manage stress.
A valuable resource are nonprofit parent advocacy centers. These centers are staffed by parents of children with disabilities. They know how to advocate for their kids and can help you do the same. There’s at least one center in every state.
What can be done at home for dyscalculia?
Parenting a child with dyscalculia can be challenging, especially if you’ve never been confident in your own math skills. But you don’t have to be a math expert. Below are several ways you can help improve your child’s ability to work with numbers. Improving math skills could strengthen his self-esteem and resilience.
Keep in mind that kids (and families) are all different. It takes trial and error to see what suits you and your child. But finding the right strategies and seeing improvement can boost everyone’s confidence.
Don’t panic if the first strategies you try aren’t effective. You may need to try different approaches to find out what works best for your child. Here are some things you can try at home:
- Learn as much as you can. Understanding the nature of dyscalculia is a good first step toward helping your child strengthen math-related skills. Let your child know that you understand what he’s going through—and that you don’t think he’s lazy, unmotivated or not smart. This can give him the encouragement he needs to keep working on that thorny math problem. It may also reduce some of the anxiety or feelings of inferiority he may be experiencing.
- Play math games. Practicing number concepts can improve skills and help reduce anxiety at school. Use household objects such as toys, grapes or pairs of socks as often as you can to help connect numbers to everyday activities. Try not to dwell on it or force these games on your child. That might make your child more anxious. Learning is easier when kids are happy and relaxed.
- Create a homework station. Help your child be more productive during homework time by carving out a space that has as few distractions as possible. You can also help your child by breaking assignments down in smaller, more manageable steps, such as doing five math problems and then taking a break before working on the next five problems.
- Cozy up with the calculator. For kids who have trouble remembering basic math facts, a calculator can help them focus on using reasoning and problem solving. These skills are highly valued in the workplace—where using a calculator isn’t considered cheating!
- Boost confidence. Identify your child’s strengths and use them to work on (or work around) weaknesses. Activities that tap into your child’s interests and abilities can help improve self-esteem and increase your child’s resilience. Check out the behavior strategies written by our team of experts. Try to pace yourself and don’t use more than one strategy at a time. That makes it easier to tell which ones are producing a good result.
- Help your child keep track of time. Whether it’s a hand on the shoulder, a few key words or a cell phone alarm, have a system in place to remind your time-challenged child when to start the next activity.
- See what it feels like. Use Through Your Child’s Eyes to experience what it’s like to have dyscalculia. Acknowledging that you understand what your child is going through is another way to boost his confidence.
- Be upbeat. Let your child know when you see him do something well. Praising effort and genuine achievement can help your child feel loved and supported. It can also give your child the confidence to work harder at building skills and help him stay motivated to try new things.
What can make the journey easier?
Whether you’re just starting out or well on your way, this site can help you find more ways to support your child. Our experts have put together a list of strategies that can help in and out of the classroom. These include tips on time management, social skills, handling anxiety and boosting self-esteem. You also may want to check out assistive technology tools and math games.
Consider connecting with other parents of kids with dyscalculia. Hearing from other parents will remind you that you’re not alone—and that there are many ways to help kids succeed and thrive.
- Many kids with dyscalculia are also found to have dyslexia and/or ADHD.
- There’s a lot you and your child’s school can do to reinforce his math skills.
- Boosting self-esteem can help your child bounce back from difficulties and keep trying new strategies.
Amanda Morin is a parent advocate and former teacher and the proud mom of kids with learning and attention issues. She is author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.
Orton-Gillingham tutoring in Columbus OH: Adrienne Edwards 614-579-6021 or email email@example.com