If your child has difficulty understanding mathematical concepts, such as identifying numbers, adding and subtracting and estimating time, it can be a real challenge in school and in daily life. Some children, it seems, cannot get those maths facts right, regardless of the number of hours spent with flashcards and skill and drill worksheets. If this frustration is familiar to you, your child may have dyscalculia.
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What Is Dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia is a group of learning disabilities related to mathematics. People with dyscalculia have trouble understanding mathematical concepts and performing mathematical calculations. Dyscalculia is to mathematics and arithmetic what dyslexia is to writing and language.
According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, there are various disabilities within the diagnosis of dyscalculia, although they tend to fall into two general categories:
- Visual-spatial difficulties: The person has trouble processing what they see. These people may find it difficult to recognize patterns.
- Language-processing difficulties: The person has trouble processing what they hear and may struggle with word problems or the language of mathematics.
Understanding the type of dyscalculia, whether it is visual-spatial or language-processing, can be very helpful in selecting the strategies used to treat the disorder.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities suggests looking out for these indications of dyscalculia at different ages.
When young children are first learning about numbers, the child with dyscalculia may:
- have trouble learning to count.
- struggle to recognize printed numbers.
- have poor number memory.
- struggle to understand the idea of a number.
- have difficulty understanding the function of a number in the world.
- have trouble sorting and organizing objects by shape.
Elementary-school-aged children who are learning basic mathematics may:
- have trouble learning the basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
- struggle to develop problem-solving skills.
- have difficulty remembering mathematical concepts and vocabulary.
- have difficulty measuring things.
School-aged children with dyscalculia often appear to have no number sense. This means that they are unaware of the relationship of numbers to one another. They may have trouble identifying numbers that are larger or smaller than a given number, or they may have trouble estimating.
For example, if you give a child with poor number sense a book that is 300 pages long and ask him or her to open the book to page 150, he or she may start at the very beginning and turn the pages one at a time. If the child passes by page 150, he or she may not know to turn the pages in the opposite direction to go back to it. A child who has good number sense will open the book to approximately the middle and will know by looking at the page number whether to flip the pages forward or back from there.
- have difficulty learning more complicated mathematical concepts.
- struggle with estimating, budgeting or balancing a chequebook.
- have trouble estimating time or adhering to a schedule.
- have difficulty with mental arithmetic and problem-solving.
In short, if a child or adult has difficulty understanding and performing age-appropriate, everyday skills that concern numbers such as making change, keeping score in a game, or estimating the passage of time, an evaluation for dyscalculia may be in order.
If you suspect your child has dyscalculia, ask their teacher for an evaluation by the school’s learning disability specialist. Dyscalculia is less common than dyslexia, but most professionals who work with children with learning disabilities should be able to recognize and evaluate it.
There is no cure or prevention for dyscalculia at the present time. Like other learning disabilities, the effects can be treated. This will help people with dyscalculia to either learn the required numerical skills or to use other strategies to compensate for the difficulty they have grasping these concepts.
The treatment for dyscalculia is to help the person learn mathematics effectively using various strategies. Identifying and understanding the areas of difficulty is the first step. Then specific strategies can be developed to help learning, understanding, and retention.
Understanding how the student learns is critically important. If a student is a visual learner – meaning they do not struggle with the visual/spatial aspects of mathematics – using physical objects (manipulatives) can help, as can colour coding. If a child is an auditory learner and does not struggle with language-processing difficulties, turning standard problems into word problems can be effective.
Since math skills build upon one another, it is important to start at the most basic level of counting, adding and subtracting. Once these skills have been mastered, move on to multiplication and division, and then to more complex skills. Start where the student is, not where he or she should be.
You may need to try several strategies for a given skill before something clicks and the student understands the skill. This is particularly true for those who struggle with language processing. You may need to present the information in different ways until you find a way that makes sense to the student. Once you find a strategy that works, keep using it.
Practicing these skills is extremely important. Since people with dyscalculia have trouble understanding the concepts behind math functions, they must practice more than someone with a typical understanding of mathematics. It may take considerably more repetitions of a problem type in order for someone with dyscalculia to get it and be able to move on to the next concept.
It is often difficult for these children to generalize mathematical concepts. For example, a child may learn that 10 apples minus 6 apples equal 4 apples. For a child with dyscalculia, it would not necessarily follow that if you buy something for $6 and pay with a $10 bill, you will get $4 in change. The calculation is the same, but the context is different. Teaching the child to subtract apples from apples is the first step, but then the concept needs to be taught in other contexts in order for the child to understand it.
Since people with dyscalculia often have other learning difficulties such as ADHD, it is important to find a place to work that is free from distractions and to have all of the required supplies (pencils, erasers, paper, graph paper, calculator, etc.) on hand before beginning.
Young children often have a particular toy or cartoon character that they have a fascination with. These can be used to help them understand numerical concepts. For example, if you are trying to teach subtraction to a child who is fascinated by cars, you can frame a subtraction problem this way: “There are six cars in the parking lot. Two cars drive away. How many are left?” The child can visualize the parking lot and see the two cars driving away, leaving four cars. Once the child has grasped the concept, you can use different examples and eventually just ask the question, “What is six minus two?”
For children who struggle with language processing, it may help for them to memorize all the language associated with a given operation. For example, teach that a subtraction problem may be indicated by the use of these words or phrases:
- how many are left?
- less than
- take away
- left over
Similarly, multiplication problems may include words or phrases like:
As concepts become more advanced in the upper elementary and middle school grades, the language can become more intimidating for students with language-processing dyscalculia. It is important to take the time to make sure that the student understands the language before they can understand the concept. There are some picture books that can help with this understanding. A great one is Sir Cumference and the First Round Table, by Cindy Neuschwander, which explains the concepts of circumference, diameter and radius in an entertaining way. If you can’t find a book that addresses the particular difficulty your student is having, make one! Have the student help, providing illustrations or offering explanations. This will help their understanding as well.
Teenagers and adults with dyscalculia can benefit from using tools to compensate for some of the skills they struggle with. For example, an adult who struggles with basic arithmetic could benefit from always carrying a calculator to use when figuring a tip or estimating the cost of a basket of groceries. This particular strategy has become less obvious with the popularity of smartphones.
Use graph paper to keep numbers properly aligned while doing multi-digit multiplication or long division. Allow plenty of room for the student to write the calculations and the answer.
Other strategies may become apparent as you work with your child, since there are nearly as many ways to learn as there are children! Once you find a strategy that works well with your child, try to think of ways that you can use that strategy to teach or reinforce other concepts.
Share the strategies that are effective for your child with your child’s teachers. This will help to keep consistency between school and home, and it may reduce the frustration your child feels in class. By sharing the strategies that you have learned and developed, you may help your child’s teacher to help other children as well.
Dyscalculia is challenging and frustrating disorder and can be limiting if it is not addressed appropriately. However, by working consistently with your child to understand, practice and apply the numerical concepts they will need to succeed in daily life, you can help your child overcome the challenges presented by this complex learning disability.