Blog > What is Dyscalculia?
I am a dyscalculic mathematician.I have a learning disability that involves learning math. It’s as common as dyslexia, just not as well-known (or as well-researched).
If you are dyscalculic, two of the hallmarks are trouble with learning multiplication tables and difficulties adding and subtracting. In my elementary school years, we were rote drilled day after day on multiplication tables. Most I can remember (seven sevens are forty nine) but for years I had gaps and I stumbled on many of the tables. I still do. For example, 7 * 9 = 63 gives me trouble every time. As a mathematician, I think I’ve done that enough times to know the answer, but I’m never confident that it IS the right answer, so I’ll have to come up with some devious ways to check my mental arithmetic. How I multiply in my head is basically by adding. So, the best example to give is to simply explain to you how I can add numbers at all.
I can add by fives, as long as I start at 0 — thanks to rote drills of multiplication tables (5,10, 15, 20…), But if I have to add five to other numbers, that’s where it gets a little tricky. For example,
3 + 5 = ?
If you said 8 right away, hand clap!
Here’s how I solve it in my head:
3 + 5 = ???
Well, 5 + 1 = 6, and 6 + 1 = 7, and 7 + 1 = 8. I have to count by dots in my head (it’s like having mental dice…I count the dots).
Or how about…today is Tuesday the 7th. What date is it next Tuesday? If you said the 14th, great! Here’s how I have to solve that one:
Today is Tuesday the 7th.
Tomorrow is Wednesday the 8th…then Thursday the 9th…then Friday the 10th…Saturday 11th…Sunday 12th…Monday 13th. Finally, I get to it being Tuesday 14th.
Again, I have a mental picture in my head (this time, of a calendar) and I just add the days up, going around in little mental circles for each week.
It sounds like it should take a long time and that it’s hard mental work. But I’ve been doing it for so long I’ve actually got quite fast at it.
If you or your child are dyscalculic, you can do math. The key is to realize that the part of the brain that normally processes math doesn’t quite work properly. You can use other parts of the brain (like the visual parts) to circumvent this. It takes time, and practice, and it isn’t easy — but it can be done.
What is Dyscalculia?
Mathematics Learning Disorder (“dyscalculia”) is a learning disorder that affects math skills.
About 5% to 7% of students have dyscalculia, which is just as common in girls as it is in boys. It is not an intellectual disability. In fact, the definition of dyscalculia (American Psychiatric Association) is “a specific learning disability that affects the normal acquisition of arithmetic skills in spite of normal intelligence” This learning disability is also not affected by emotional stability, opportunities to learn, or motivation. In other words, the quality of education your child gets and their desire to learn math has nothing to do with dyscalculia. It is caused by physical issues in the brain. Dyscalculia has a genetic component and may run in families.
About half of students with dyscalculia can be helped with rote learning of arithmetic or learning different strategies. Your child may “grow out of” as the brain matures; underdeveloped parts of the brain are thought to play a role in the development of the disorder. However, dyscalculia can become a lifelong learning disability for many people.
A person with dyscalculia has trouble with anything to do with basic arithmetic. They don’t understand numbers the same way as a typical learner. For example, they don’t understand the size of a number and how that relates to other numbers. The long-term prognosis for children with dyscalculia isn’t fully understood. Which strategies are most effective and what the long-term results are from those strategies aren’t known for sure either. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to help your child; there are strategies that can help them learn arithmetic. Your child has a good chance of putting dyscalculia behind them. Exactly which strategies will work is going to be a choice for you, and your child. You may have to hunt and peck to find something that works for your child, as no two learners are exactly the same.
In general, the sooner you help your child, the better chance they have of overcoming their dyscalculia. Children in the first and second grades who are taught counting show significant improvement in a short period of time. However, if intervention is left until the fifth grade, the outcomes are a lot less favorable. Your child is also more likely to have persistent dyscalculia if they have siblings who have the learning disability and if their dyscalculia is severe at the time of diagnosis (Geary, 1994).
Dyscalculia doesn’t mean that your child will fail math. Dyscalculia is a recognized learning disability, so schools and colleges will usually make accommodations for students. For example, a student may be able to take a pass-fail option for full course credit using an approved, self-paced software package. Some colleges and schools may even waive the math requirement or allow to student to substitute another class for credit.
Although there are many signs and symptoms that can indicate dyscalculia, it is a learning disability and should be diagnosed by a professional, like a clinical psychologist. This professional diagnosis is needed for many reasons, including:
- Your child could have an underlying disorder that is causing the dyscalculia. For example, if your child has ADHD, treatment for the ADHD could potentially resolve the dyscalculia.
- Getting a diagnosis opens up many educational options. These include modifications and accommodations in school and college.
Many of us take for granted basic arithmetic skills like adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. Unlike reading, it is human nature to count, sort, organize and compare things even without formal schooling (Ginsburg, 1997). Dyscalculia becomes noticeable during the school years as students fail to reach expected milestones.
Children with attention deficits, like ADHD, will run into problems during the next stage of learning, where details become important. A mathematical problem is full of details, like:
- Where the decimal point should go.
- What the order of numbers are.
- Where to write the numbers that carry over.
- Which procedure to use for division or multiplication.
A child with ADHD might be able to recall facts, but they may have problems applying those facts to problems. Dyscalculic children who have problems with retrieval memory will also stumble at this phase of learning. They can’t recall the basic facts in the first place, and often will have trouble with remembering all of the details and what each one means or how it should be used.
After learning basic math facts and learning details about notation, children move on to learning procedures. At this stage, a child must use their working memory. They must have the ability to conceptualize the problem and remember the procedure for solving it. Examples of this early-stage learning process might include long division, multiplication of large numbers and slightly more complex word problems. At this stage, a child who struggles with learning basic math facts and details will be unable to comprehend anything on the paper. For example, they will be unable to conceptualize the magnitude of numbers, which is necessary for subtraction. One way to solve “765 minus 452” is this way:
However, a child with dyscalculia might write it the other way around, leading to the incorrect answer (if they can answer it at all, because this way around would result in a negative answer):
As a child goes through school, all of the above processes are combined. A child can then manipulate number facts, details and algorithms to solve more complex problems, like in beginning algebra. This stage of learning requires a great deal of working memory. A child with a deficit in this area will have troubles manipulating the task parts needed to solve problems.
Some of the signs of a mathematics learning disability in elementary aged school children are:
- Problems retrieving basic facts about arithmetic. For example, the solution to 15 – 8 or 4 x 7 is incomprehensible.
- Severe difficulty with rote memorization of arithmetic tables.
- Severe difficulty in figuring out addition, subtraction, division and multiplication.
- Mis-using the arithmetic signs (+ – x /).
- Forgetting to carry digits over.
- Putting digits in the wrong place.
- Performing operations in the wrong direction.
Other signs that your child may have dyscalculia (applies to all ages):
- Ability to complete homework but cannot recall the work and fails tests.
- Experiences anxiety when performing or thinking about math.
- Frequently late and has trouble keeping track of time, recalling schedules and making appointments.
- Has difficulty with physical exercise that requires memory of steps, like karate or formal dancing.
- Has trouble keeping game scores, like in cards or bowling.
- Loses objects like keys, pencils, or books.
- Poor money management skills.
- Poor sense of direction; gets lost easily.
- Poor skills with reading music or playing instruments.
- Slow mental math skills, like when calculating a tip amount in a restaurant.
- Trouble with basic math skills, like order of operations (PEMDAS) or formulas.
- Trouble with remembering people’s names.
- Unable to picture mathematical processes in the mind’s eye.
- Unable to picture the location of numbers on a clock, geographic location of countries and states in the mind’s eye.
- Unable to keep track of numbers when counting. For example, most students with dyscalculia cannot keep track of counting a hundred pennies, or cannot count by fours past about 12 or 16 without having to manually add four each time.
- Uncertain of the meaning of math terms like numerator and denominator.
In general, several of these symptoms must be fairly severe to get a diagnosis of dyscalculia. If your child has six or more signs, it’s probably time to get a professional diagnosis.
According to the University College London, dyscalculic students also behave differently from their mainstream peers when figuring out math problems, for example:
- If you ask “which is the larger of two playing cards” showing 4 and 9, they have to count all the symbols on each card.
- To place a playing card of 7 in sequence between a 4 and a 9 they count the spaces between the two to figure out where they should place the 7.
- To count down from 10 they count up from 1 to 10, then 1 to 9, etc.
- To count up from 60 in tens, they say ’60, 70, 80, 90, 100, 200, 300…’
- They estimate the height of a normal room as ‘200 feet?’
Children and young adults (up to the age of around 21-26) can get free testing through their local school district. Contact your local education board and ask for the special education office. You can also inquire through your child’s teacher or school principal; make a list of the difficulties your child is experiencing with learning and ask for an evaluation for learning disabilities. You can also write a letter requesting the services; the school has, by law, 60 days to respond to your request and to schedule an evaluation. In my experience though, an informal request for an evaluation is normally all that’s needed. After the evaluation, the school will schedule a meeting with you and an IEP representative to discuss either an IEP or 504 plan.
If you have trouble with contacting the right people, call your state special education office for guidance. The U.S. Department of Education keeps a list of state special education offices through EROD (Education Resources Organizations Directory). You can find the list here:
Click on “Organizations by Type,” then click “State Director of Children with Special Health Needs.”
Adults (over 18) and high school seniors (over 17) can find help through your State Vocational Rehabilitation Agency.
Click on “Organizations by Type,” then click “State Vocational Rehabilitation Agency.”
Your health insurance may also cover a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation for learning disabilities through a clinical psychologist. Call your insurance company to check which services are covered.
A dyscalculic student has three main options:
- Special education with a professional teacher familiar with dyscalculia and the strategies needed for remediation. This is offered through the IEP plan in school districts.
- Specialized teaching with a professional tutor. This can be a very expensive option, but intervention by a qualified teacher can dramatically improve a child’s understanding of math.
- Parent-guided intervention with the help of assistive software.
Perhaps the most vital thing to do is to identify where you child is having difficulties. For example, if they are not competent with the first stage of learning (arithmetic facts, the meaning of numbers), they will be unable to move on to the next level.
In general, you can use several strategies to help a dyscalculic student.
Improve Study Skills
- Completing homework assignments
- Meeting deadlines
- Behaving well in class
- Arriving prepared for lessons
Strengthening Arithmetic Concepts
Studies have shown that drills, which allow a child to automatically remember facts, are helpful for children with dyscalculia. For example, help your child learn the times tables. You probably remember the familiar chant from way back (“one times two is two, two times two is four”). There is a ton of teaching materials available, including cards and software to help your child learn the basics. For example, Big Brainz is a video game with superb graphics that can help your child master basic math facts. Not all students will find video games appealing; find out which method appeals to your child.
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