Dyscalculia is what we call it when a child has trouble understanding, learning, and using numbers. Children with dyscalculia may have trouble reading and writing numbers, or using them to make sums. They may also find it hard to remember strings of numbers, for instance, a telephone number. As a learning difficulty, dyscalculia is a lot like dyslexia, but with numbers instead of letters, words, reading, and writing.
Many children think of math as their least favorite subject. They may struggle with assignments. In dyscalculia, however, a child’s troubles with math go beyond simple frustration. When a child has a serious, long-lasting problem with even basic math, it may be a sign of dyscalculia.
Dyscalculia is not very common. While there are no exact statistics available, experts think that anywhere from 5 to 7 percent of all elementary school children have dyscalculia. Both boys and girls can have dyscalculia in equal numbers.
Is Dyscalculia a Disability?
Dyscalculia is a learning disability or disorder. But some people prefer to call dyscalculia a learning “difference” or “difficulty.” These words don’t feel as much like a negative or hurtful label.
It’s important to know that dyscalculia is not the only learning difficulty that causes problems with math. Other learning problems that can make math a challenge include ADHD, dyslexia, and visual or auditory processing disorders. Then again, a child can have more than one learning difficulty. A child may, for example, have both dyscalculia and ADHD, or dyslexia and a visual processing disorder.
Trouble with math may lead to testing for dyscalculia. But math is just one challenge for people with the learning difficulty. Dyscalculia affects everyday life and it doesn’t go away. A person with dyscalculia may, for instance, always find it hard to follow a recipe, remember a phone number, or read a map. It’s good to know there are strategies to help children develop the skills they need to live a normal, happy life.
Children with dyscalculia may struggle with math in many different ways. A child with dyscalculia may not understand amounts or the difference between largest and smallest. The child may not see the numeral 3 is the same as the word three. The plus sign may not mean anything to the child or may not seem different than the multiplication sign. Some call these skills number sense.
It makes sense that children with poor number sense skills will also have trouble with math. The child with dyscalculia may understand the logic behind a math problem. He may, for example, understand that he is to take an apple and put it next to another apple and that this is called “adding.” But he doesn’t see one apple and think “one,” so he cannot tell you that one plus one equals two. He may also find it difficult to understand that two apples are more than one apple.
Children with dyscalculia have trouble with their working memory. The working memory is the part of your memory that keeps items you need in the short term for the work you are doing. A child with dyscalculia may not be able to work through a math problem with multiple steps. It can be hard to hold the numbers in mind as the child completes each step.
Dyscalculia can cause different problems in different children. That means the symptoms of one child with dyscalculia may be different from those of another child with the learning difference. It’s a good idea to write down what you see as you observe your child. Sharing your notes with the child’s doctor or teacher can help them find the best way to work with or get help for your child.
Signs of dyscalculia can be seen in a preschooler, but may be difficult to spot. After all, lots of children have a difficult time learning basic concepts like numbers and math. As the child becomes older, however, it becomes clear that there is a real problem that isn’t going away with time.
Common Signs of Dyscalculia
Here are some common signs of dyscalculia, according to age:
- Learning to count is hard. The child skips numbers or says them out of order, long after friends are able to say their numbers in the proper order.
- Has trouble organizing toys according to size or pointing to the largest or smallest item in a storybook, when asked to do so.
- Find it difficult to understand the connection between written numbers and what they mean. (Doesn’t understand that “3” means three.)
- Doesn’t really understand what it means to count. If you ask her for 3 blocks, she will give you an armload instead of counting them out.
- Learning and remembering basic math is difficult, for instance 2+3=5.
- Can’t remember the names of basic math symbols and finds it a challenge to remember how to use them, too.
- Counts on fingers, instead of remembering basic math like 2+2=4.
- Finds it a challenge to understand ideas like greater than and less than.
- Finds even a visual-spatial representation of numbers, for instance number lines, hard to understand.
- Has trouble understanding place value.
- Finds it difficult to write numbers clearly.
- Has trouble lining up or placing numbers in the right column.
- Struggles with fractions.
- Measuring ingredients for even a simple recipe is a challenge.
- Keeping score during sports games is tough.
- Has trouble using math concepts with money, for example, estimating the total cost of items he wants to purchase, counting out exact change, or calculating the waiter’s tip in a restaurant.
- Finds it hard to understand graphs, charts, and maps.
- Struggles with using a measuring cup or measuring spoons.
- Can’t see another way to do a math problem. For instance, 6-1 is the same as 2+3.
Dyscalculia isn’t just about the problems it causes in school. Having a numbers difficulty also affects everyday life. Getting to an appointment on time is difficult because time is based on numbers. You might accidentally schedule overlapping events, and have to miss out on a promised lunch with a friend.
Dyscalculia gets in the way of figuring out how much time you need to set aside for tasks. This, in turn, can affect your approach to setting up work projects. If you miscalculate how much time you need to complete a project, you end up missing deadlines. In the home, dyscalculia can make it a chore just figuring out how to time dinner so that all the food is ready and on the table at the same time, at the right temperature.
Dyscalculia Comes with Other Issues
Learning difficulties like dyscalculia often come with other such issues. When someone has more than one learning difficulty, the issues are said to be comorbid. Dyscalculia is often comorbid with dyslexia and/or ADHD. Some 43-65 percent of children with math issues also have reading issues. ADHD can make it difficult to pay attention when doing math and may play a part in a child’s math errors.
A child with dyscalculia may be weak in executive function skills, which have to do with working memory, flexible thinking, impulse control, planning, and organization. It is also common for children with dyscalculia to have math anxiety. Math anxiety makes children so afraid of poor results on a math test that their nervousness leads to exactly the poor performance they fear.
Some learning difficulties have symptoms that are similar to the symptoms of dyscalculia. This can make diagnosis difficult. It might look like a child only has dyscalculia, when the child actually has more than one learning disability or difficulty. Or, the child’s dyscalculia may be altogether missed or misdiagnosed as something else.
If you suspect your child may have dyscalculia, it’s best to have a full evaluation. A full evaluation can reveal whether your child has more than one learning issue. A proper diagnosis will help you know what type of support and therapies your child needs. Most schools will test your child for free.
If your child has ADHD, for example, it may be suggested that your child have her math skills reevaluated after getting the symptoms of ADHD under control. The treatment for ADHD may be all your child needs to fix her math issues. This may suggest the problem was never dyscalculia in the first place. It was all about an attention difficulty, and paying attention to detail.
If your child is tested at school, and found to have dyscalculia, it should be possible for the school to get her the help she needs. She may need tutoring or special classes in math. The school may give your child accommodations to make learning easier. An accommodation may be to have your child answer math questions orally instead of having to write them out. Or your child may be allowed to use a calculator in the classroom or do fewer math homework problems.
Causes of Dyscalculia
Sometimes dyscalculia is the result of a genetic disorder. Genetic disorders that may cause dyscalculia include fragile X syndrome, Gerstmann’s syndrome, and Turner’s syndrome. For other children, poor math skills just seem to run in the family.
Sometimes outside, environmental factors can cause dyscalculia. Fetal alcohol syndrome, for example, can lead to dyscalculia. Premature babies and low birth weight babies may later turn out to have dyscalculia.
Helping Children with Dyscalculia
Here are some strategies that can be used in the classroom and at home to help strengthen numbers and math skills:
- Use real objects to help your child connect numbers to items. You can have your child use an abacus. Or have your child sort buttons by size or color. Once the buttons are in piles, you can have the child tell you which piles are larger and which are smaller. This kind of practice can help to improve your child’s number sense.
- Give numbers a form by having your child draw pictures of items, or move objects around to show addition and subtraction.
- Have your child use graph paper for working with numbers and math. This helps keep numbers neat and easier to read.
- When working on a math problem, cover the rest of the math sheet with a piece of paper. This helps your child focus on the problem at hand.
- Play board games that build number and math skills
- Talk up your child’s abilities, to combat low self-esteem caused by poor math skills
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