Lots of kids struggle with numbers, but for some math is a nightmare. Do you have a student whose difficulties persist despite lots of practice and help? They may have the mathematical learning disorder Dyscalculia. Learn the signs and get them the help they need.

Signs And Symptoms of Dyscalculia

Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash

Do you have any students who really struggle with numbers? Despite extra practise they can’t seem to recognise number patterns and loose track when counting? Have you tried multiple approaches to help them overcome these difficulties and yet nothing seems to work?

My son was one of those struggling students. He was bright and articulate. His reading levels and vocabulary was way ahead of his peers.

But math was a nightmare!

From the time he started school my son battled to understand numbers. We tried everything you can think of. The poor kid put in hours of work with flashcards, math songs, workbooks, manipulating actual objects, and computer games, but nothing worked. Numbers were like moonbeams to him. They slipped through his fingers and he simply couldn’t grasp them.

By the time he reached grade 9 both of us dreaded math and he was failing badly.

Then quite by chance I read a passing comment about the mathematical disability Dyscalculia. It was the first I’d ever heard of it and it changed everything. You can read our story here. One month later an educational psychologist diagnosed my son with Dyscalculia and we began to see the light.

What on earth is Dyscalculia?

The word Dyscalculia comes from Greek and Latin, which means, “counting badly.” It refers to a wide range of life-long learning disabilities involving maths. In 2013 The American Psychiatric Association defined Developmental Dyscalculia as a

“ Specific learning disorder that is characterised by impairments in learning basic arithmetic facts, processing numerical magnitude and performing accurate and fluent calculations. These difficulties must be quantifiably below what is expected for an individual’s chronological age, and must not be caused by poor educational or daily activities or by intellectual impairments.”

Here is a short video that explains dyscalculia

How common is it?

Experts estimate that 4-6% of the population have this learning disability. This means that there is probably at least one child in every class struggling with math. And yet many teachers have never heard of Dyscalulia. As a result thousands of learners go through school without diagnosis.

My son was one of them. Every one of his primary school teachers noted the specific struggles he had with math and organization. But NONE OF THEM had heard of dyscalculia, so they didn’t make the connection. My son wasn’t diagnosed until grade 9 and he was one of the lucky ones

“As a child, I was called stupid and lazy. On the SAT I got 159 out of 800 in math. My parents had no idea that I had a learning disability.” Henry Winkler (actor and dyscalculic)

The sad thing is that diagnosis can make a huge difference. Once some learning accommodations had been put into place my son went from failing math to passing with flying colors.

How I wish he could have been diagnosed when he first started school. It would have made a huge difference. Not only would it have saved us hours of frustration, but his struggles had severely impacted his self-esteem.

Signs And Symptoms of Dyscalculia

If you are a teacher

I would beg/plead that you learn all you can about this learning disability. Become familiar with the symptoms. It is very likely that at least one child in each of your classes will have this disability. A diagnosis could make a huge difference in their lives.

If you are a parent

Find out all you can about Dyscalculia. Knowledge is power and it will help you become an effective advocate for your child.

Signs of Dyscalculia in Kindergarten Students

  • Student has difficulty recognizing numbers
  • experiences delyas in learning to count, looses track when counting and may 
skip over numbers..
  • Finds it hard to connect numerical symbols with their corresponding words
  • Has difficulty recognizing patterns and placing things in order
  • Cannot group things by shape size and color.
  • Struggles to identify which number is larger.
  • Struggles to connect a specific number to groups of items and don’t understand that 4 can apply to any group that has four things in it.
  • Has poor memory when it comes to numbers, so they will struggle to memorize their phone number.
  • Has trouble sensing time and the passage of time.
  • Weakness in visual and spatial orientation. Gets lost or disoriented and may often lose things.
  • May have difficulty keeping up with rapidly changing physical directions in gym class.
  • May have left/right confusion.

Signs And Symptoms of Dyscalculia

Signs of Dyscaculia in Grade School Students

  • Has difficulty learning and recalling basic math facts, such as 2 + 4 = 6. Finds multiplication tables extremely hard.
  • Still uses fingers to count instead of using more advanced strategies (like mental math).
  • Struggles to identify math symbols such as +,-, x, ÷ and to use them correctly.
  • Struggles to identify clue words with math operations, so finds math word problems very hard.
  • Has trouble with place value, often putting numbers in the wrong column when doing calculations.
  • Has trouble writing numbers clearly. When writing, reading and recalling numbers will show number additions, substitutions, transpositions, omissions, and reversals.
  • Has trouble reading a clock and the understanding time.
  • Avoids games that require math skills or keeping score.
  • Weakness in visual and spatial orientation. Gets lost/ disoriented and looses things. May have left/right confusion.
  • May have difficulty keeping up with rapidly changing physical directions in gym class.

This short video shows what Dyscalculia can look like. It features an eight-year-old boy who is obviously very intelligent. He has great vocabulary and can remember all kinds of interesting facts, but really struggles to do a simple math exercise.

Signs And Symptoms of Dyscalculia

Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

Are you thinking about a particular student?

Are you thinking about a specific student and wondering if they have this learning disability? It is very possible that they do. If you have 20 children in your class, chances are that 1 of them will have Dyscalculia.

Accommodations

There are lots of ways to help students diagnosed with Dyscalculia. As with all learning difficulties there is no one-size-fits-all approach. You will have to try different approaches. Here are a few ideas that really helped my son:

  • Permission to use the calculator for anything involving numbers
  • Given extra time to do math, especially on exams
  • Ensuring that all instructions are written, as those with Dyscalculia often have a hard time processing and/or remembering a list of verbal instructions
  • Using graph paper to help keep the numbers lined up for calculations
  • Permission to read math problems out loud if helpful
  • Providing uncluttered worksheets, so that students are not overwhelmed with too much visual information
  • When presenting new material, make sure students can write each step down and talk it through until they understand it well enough to teach it back

For more ideas on accommodations for diagnosed students, see this article at Understood.org.

Signs And Symptoms of Dyscalculia

Free Information sheets

We put together a set of printable information sheets. They include signs of Dyscalculia as well as some helpful links for both parents and teachers.

Helpful videos

This helpful video gives you a bit more information

Dyscalculia specialist Ronit Bird talks about the difficulties some children have in developing number sense and learning basic arithmetic.

Helpful Reads

Overcoming Difficulties with Number by Ronit Bird

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Understanding Dyscalculia and Numeracy Difficulties

Dyscalculia: Action plans for successful learning in mathematics 

Please help us spread the word

Dyscalculia has only started coming to the attention of educators and research scientists in recent years. There is some very interesting research being done, but there is still a lot to be learned at this point. Definitions and diagnostic tests are being developed. Still as teachers and parents we can educate ourselves and make sure that our students/children get the help they need.

Please help us to spread the word. Forward this article to your colleagues and consider sharing it on social media.