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What is Dyscalculia and How Can You Help Your Child??

Dr. Kawthar Hameed Abdullah

Ed.D Educational Psychology & Special Education

Dyscalculia is a math learning disability that impairs an individual’s ability to learn number-related concepts, performing accurate math calculations, reasoning and problem solving skills, and performing other basic math skills. Dyscalculia is sometimes called “number dyslexia” or “math-lexia.”

Children with dyscalculia tend to exhibit challenges in all areas of math, including money, measurement, and time. These challenges not only impact their ability to perform well at school but many necessary life skills as well. For a child with dyscalculia, educational support will be needed. Surprisingly, a number of the children I have worked with children who struggled in all areas of math have gone on and done well in mathematics. It has been my experience that many of the challenges children had with math were resolved with appropriate intervention and support

Many current educational programs feature integrated science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs. For most children, studying in the mainstream classroom, the math lessons taught in the classroom is usually adequate enough to obtain mastery of the subject. However, children with dyscalculia need additional support and instruction after school to fully understand what is being taught in class and to complete homework assignments.

It’s currently estimated that between 5 and 7% of elementary school aged children may have dyscalculia. It’s also thought that dyscalculia occurs equally in both genders. Many children that have dyscalculia may also have ADHD or dyslexia as well.

What to look for:

A young child with dyscalculia in kindergarten and lower elementary may:

  • · Have difficulty recognizing numbers

  • Being delayed in learning to count

  • Struggle to connect numerical symbols with their equivalent words. (1=one)

  • Have difficulty recognizing patterns and placing things in order

  • Lose track when counting

  • Need to use visual aids, such as blocks or fingers, to count

  • difficulty sorting

  • trouble learning time

  • frustrated playing games other children love (especially those involving counting)

  • difficulty relating numbers to items ( such as, how many block are there)

  • difficulty in remembering colors and shapes

As children move up to upper elementary and middle school you may find your child may:

  • ·Have significant difficulty learning basic math tasks like addition and subtraction, times tables and basic geometry

  • Be unable to comprehend the concepts behind word problems and other non-numerical math calculations

  • Difficulties in understanding place value

  • Have difficulty estimating the time it will take to finish a task

  • Struggle with math homework assignments and tests

  • Have difficulty keeping at grade-level in math

  • Struggles to process visual-spatial ideas like graphs and charts

  • Progressing slowly learning math facts when the class has moved on to more complicated calculations

  • Difficulties in understanding greater than and less than

  • Difficulties in understanding the concepts of rounding

  • Frustrated with mathematics or complains about hating math

  • Disorganized with schedules and time management

  • Finds word problems are extremely difficult

  • Often mixes up right and left

  • Often gets lost easily and has trouble with directions to find a certain location

As your child transitions from middle school into high school and pre-adulthood you may find:

  • Has trouble remembering numbers such as zip codes, phone numbers, or game scores

  • Had difficulty in telling time from an analog clock

  • Struggles with money matters such as making change, counting bills, calculating a tip, splitting a check or estimating how much something will cost.

  • Has difficulty judging the length of distances and how long it will take to get from one location to another

  • Gets lost easily and has difficulty with directions in finding a certain location.

  • Struggle to remember instructions

  • Has a difficult time telling left from right

  • Had difficulty using graphs, maps, number lines, charts and other space/time awareness

  • Complains of difficulty with math class but appears to know the concepts or is intelligent in other areas.

  • Unable to estimate the size of a crowd or group of people

  • Driving or measuring speed is difficult

  • Often late or misses events, confuses dates and/or time

  • Still struggles ‘simple’ math facts

Many students struggle with math and math anxiety, but for those with dyscalculia, a math-related learning disability, math classes and tests present seemingly overwhelming hurdles that can affect educational success which can lower a child’s confidence and self-esteem.

There are different approaches and techniques that can help dyscalculic students succeed. Here are strategies for making math concepts easier to understand and remember

1. Talk the Problem Out or Write Out a Problem

For the dyscalculic student, math concepts are simply abstracts, and numbers mere marks on a page. Talking through a problem or writing it down in sentence form can help with seeing relationships between the elements. Even restating word problems in a new way can help with organizing information and seeing solutions.

2. Draw the Problem

Drawing the problem can also help visual learners to see relationships and understand concepts. Students can “draw through” the problem with images that reflect their understanding of the problem and show ways to solve it.

3. Use Manipulatives

Place value cubes, working with number magnets, colorful clocks, play money, calculators, and apps that help children to have fun while learning math.

One of the best adaptations to try is graph paper. Begin with large squares and show kids how the numbers line up correctly. The visual lines help keep the letters and numbers straight. As math concepts get more difficult, switch to smaller sized squares.

4. Focus on games and activities, rather than worksheets

It is not difficult to find, or invent, simple activities and games that target particular misconceptions or points of difficulty. Activities present mathematics as a challenge or a puzzle that needs to be solved in a practical manner. They allow children to focus on one aspect at a time and to construct mathematical meaning for themselves at their own rate of understanding. Games encourage children to revisit important topics regularly, thereby developing some degree of automaticity, whilst maintaining a high level of interest and enjoyment.

5. Break Tasks Down into Subgroups

Dyscalculic students can easily get overwhelmed by a complex problem or concept, especially if it builds on prior knowledge — which they may not have retained. Separating a problem into its component parts and working through them one at a time can help students focus, see connections and avoid overload.

6. Use “Real-Life” Cues and Physical Objects

Relating math to the practicalities of daily life can help dyscalculic students make sense of concepts and see the relationships between numbers. Props like measuring cups, rulers and countable objects that students can manipulate can make math concepts less abstract. As much as you can, demonstrate math in your day to day living. This will provide your child with real life examples and help them see why math is so important and worth working at. It’s also an ideal way to practice basic math concepts like numbers, in a way that’s fun and meaningful.

7. Review Often

Because dyscalculic students struggle to retain math-related information, it becomes hard to master new skills that build on previous lessons. Short, frequent review sessions — every day, if necessary — help keep information fresh and applicable to the next new task. Creating written or drawn references such as cards or diagrams can help with quick reviews.

Like other learning disabilities, dyscalculia affects student success both in and out of the classroom. Study strategies that bring the abstract world of mathematics down to earth with visual and verbal cues and physical props can help dyscalculic students overcome obstacles to making sense of math

8. Develop a Positive Mindset in Your Child

Children believing they are not good at math is common, whether or not they suffer from dyscalculia. In either case, it’s really important that your child has a positive attitude towards math. As a parent, you can help through praise, support and encouraging her to persevere, even when it gets difficult. This will show her that you believe in her, and with hard work, anybody is able to make progress in the subject.

How is Dyscalculia Treated?

Not all children with dyscalculia are alike in terms of what they find challenging. The difficulty will vary from person to person and may change at different phases in their education.

If your child has been diagnosed, it’s important to work with your child’s school and establish strategies and support for them to learn math more effectively such as:

  • ·Helping your child to become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses.

  • Having a specialized support teacher, to work on the child’s particular difficulty.

  • Focusing on frequent reinforcement with lots of repetition of math concepts.

  • Finding different strategies to approach math facts.

  • Practicing estimating as a way to begin solving math problems.

  • When introducing new skills, start with concrete examples.

As with any learning challenge, an effective way to help your child is to be as educated as you can be on their learning challenge. Being informed means that you can give your child the best help & support that they need. Remember, Just your child needs to ask for help when required, so do parents. Have the support that you need is important for both you and your child, it will also make your journey less stressful.

Dr. Kawthar Hameed Abdullah is an educational psychologist and special educational specialist. She holds a Ed.D in both educational psychology and special education. She has over 25 years experience working with children with different educational, intellectual and emotional challenges.


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