Understanding Dyscalculia in Children

Dyscalculia is a learning disability in math. Kids with dyscalculia can have trouble with quantities and concepts like bigger and smaller. They may also struggle with math symbols and more complex math. Having dyscalculia doesn’t mean kids aren’t smart. But they may have a hard time applying what they know to solve math problems.

The more you know about your child’s challenges, the better equipped you’ll be to help. This overview addresses dyscalculia basics. It can also lead you to more in-depth information and tools you can use.

If you think your child might have dyscalculia, here are steps you can take. And if you recently found out your child has dyscalculia, learn what you can do next.

Snapshot: What Dyscalculia Is

Dyscalculia makes it hard for kids to do math and math-related tasks. It’s not as well known or as understood as dyslexia. But some experts believe it’s just as common.

Experts don’t know for sure if dyscalculia is more common in girls or in boys. But most agree it’s unlikely that there’s any significant difference. (It’s also a myth that boys are better at math than girls.)

Kids with dyscalculia also have trouble remembering math facts. Or they may understand the logic behind math, but not how or when to apply what they know to solve math problems.

They also often struggle with working memory. For example, they may have a hard time holding numbers in mind while doing math problems with multiple steps.

Dyscalculia Signs and Symptoms

Dyscalculia can cause different types of math difficulties. So, symptoms may vary from child to child. Observing your child and taking notes to share with teachers and doctors is a good way to find the best strategies for your child.

Dyscalculia often looks different at different ages. It tends to become more noticeable as kids get older. But signs can appear as early as preschool. Here’s what to look for:

Preschool

  • Has trouble learning to count and skips over numbers long after kids the same age can remember numbers in the right order
  • Struggles to recognize patterns, such as smallest to largest or tallest to shortest
  • Has trouble recognizing number symbols (knowing that “7” means seven)
  • Doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of counting—for example, when you ask for five blocks, your child just hands you an armful, rather than counting them out

Grade School

  • Has difficulty learning and recalling basic math facts, such as 2 + 4 = 6
  • Struggles to identify +, ‒, and other signs, and to use them correctly
  • May still use fingers to count instead of using more advanced strategies, like mental math
  • Struggles to understand words related to math, such as greater than and less than
  • Has trouble with visual-spatial representations of numbers, such as number lines

Middle School

  • Has difficulty understanding place value
  • Has trouble writing numerals clearly or putting them in the correct column
  • Has trouble with fractions and with measuring things, like ingredients in a simple recipe
  • Struggles to keep score in sports games

High School

  • Struggles to apply math concepts to money, including estimating the total cost, making exact change, and figuring out a tip
  • Has a hard time grasping information shown on graphs or charts
  • Has difficulty measuring things like ingredients in a simple recipe or liquids in a bottle
  • Has trouble finding different approaches to the same math problem

Dyscalculia can create challenges in more areas than just learning. Learn how it can affect everyday skills, too. These include social interactions and time management.

What Can Co-Occur with Dyscalculia

There are a few challenges that often co-occur with dyscalculia. Some of them have symptoms that can look like dyscalculia:

Dyslexia: Kids very often have both dyslexia and dyscalculia. In fact, researchers have found that 43–65 percent of kids with math disabilities also have reading disabilities. Learn about the difference between dyscalculia and dyslexia.

ADHD: Dyscalculia and ADHD often occur at the same time. Sometimes kids make math errors because of ADHD challenges. They might have trouble paying attention to detail, for instance. So, some experts recommend re-evaluating math skills after getting ADHD symptoms under control.

Executive functioning issues: Executive functions are key skills that impact learning. They include working memory, flexible thinking, and planning and organizing. Trouble with these skills can make math hard. Learn how executive function can impact math.

Math anxiety: Kids with math anxiety worry about even the idea of doing math. That fear and nervousness can make them perform poorly on math tests and homework. Learn about the difference between dyscalculia and math anxiety.

Dyscalculia is also associated with few genetic disorders. These include fragile X syndrome, Gerstmann’s syndrome, and Turner’s syndrome.

Possible Causes of Dyscalculia

Researchers don’t know exactly what causes dyscalculia. But they believe it’s partly due to differences in how the brain is structured and functions.

Here are some of the possible causes of dyscalculia:

  • Genes: Research shows that genetics may have an impact on whether a child has dyscalculia. Dyscalculia tends to run in families, which also suggests that genes play a role.
  • Brain development: Studies using brain scans have shown some differences in people with dyscalculia. The structure of the brain is different in certain areas. And there are differences in how the brain functions in areas associated with processing numbers and math concepts. (These areas are linked to key learning skills like memory and planning.)
  • Environment: Dyscalculia has been linked to fetal alcohol syndrome. Prematurity and low birth weight may also play a role in dyscalculia.
  • Brain injury: Studies show that injury to certain parts of the brain can result in what researchers call acquired dyscalculia.

It’s not clear how much these brain differences are shaped by genetics and how much by experience. But researchers are trying to learn if interventions can “rewire” the brain to make math easier. This concept is known as neuroplasticity.

How Dyscalculia Is Diagnosed

Finding out if your child has dyscalculia requires an evaluation. This can happen at school for free. You can also pay to have it done privately. (Learn about the pros and cons of school and private evaluations, and different terms you may hear for evaluations.)

There’s a set of tests just for dyscalculia. But they should be given as part of a full evaluation that looks at other areas as well. There are other challenges that often co-occur with dyscalculia. So, it’s important to have a complete picture of what’s going on in order to make a proper diagnosis.

There are a few types of professionals who do evaluations. They include:

  • School psychologists
  • Child psychologists
  • Pediatric neuropsychologists

A psychologist may also look for ADHD and mental health issues like anxiety and depression, which are common in kids who learn and think differently.

The evaluator might ask for a family history. And you might be asked to fill out questionnaires about your child’s strengths and challenges. The evaluator might also ask your child’s teacher what’s happening in the classroom.

A diagnosis (schools call it an identification) allows your child to get supports and services at school. Your child might get special instruction in math, for instance. The school might also give accommodations to make learning math easier.

How Professionals Can Help with Dyscalculia

Different types of professionals can help kids with dyscalculia in different ways. Some may work in a school setting, while others work privately.

Here are some types of professionals who might work with your child:

  • Special education teachers
  • Math tutors or educational therapists
  • Child psychologists
  • Pediatric neuropsychologists

There are no medications for dyscalculia. And there aren’t specialized teaching programs like there are for dyslexia. But a teaching approach called multisensory instruction can make it easier for kids with dyscalculia to learn math. This approach uses various senses to help kids learn skills and understand concepts. It also helps to teach math concepts systematically, where one skill builds on the next. This can help kids with dyscalculia make stronger connections to what they’re learning.

Kids with an IEP (Individual Education Plan) may get a variety of supports at school. These can include assistive technology or accommodations, like extra time on tests or use of a calculator. Or they may have fewer problems to solve on their homework. These supports can help “level the playing field” for kids with dyscalculia.

Your child might be able to get support at school without an IEP plan, too. The teacher could give informal supports to help in class or with assignments and tests. Your child might also get instructional interventions through extra lessons on remedial sessions.

There are lots of strategies teachers can use to help kids with dyscalculia. (You can try these at home, too.) Here are a few examples:

  • Use concrete examples that connect math to real life, like sorting buttons. This can help strengthen number sense.
  • Use visual aids when solving problems. Kids might draw pictures or move around objects, for instance.
  • Use graph paper to help keep numbers lined up.
  • Use an extra piece of paper to cover up most of what’s on a math sheet or test so kids can focus on one problem at a time.

How You Can Help Your Child with Dyscalculia

Your role is key when it comes to supporting and encouraging your child. From working with the school to building math skills at home, you can help your child stay motivated to work on challenges.

Here are just some things you can do:

  • Explore multisensory techniques for teaching math that you can use at home.
  • Discover software, apps, and Chrome tools to help with math.
  • Look into free online tools for math.
  • Find board games that build math skills.
  • Learn ways to help build your child’s self-esteem.
  • See what your child can say to self-advocate in intermediate phase and high school.
  • Get tips on how to be an advocate for your child at school.
  • Discover your child’s strengths.

Explore a collection of strategies to help with dyscalculia to get even more ideas. And visit Parenting Coach, where you’ll find hundreds of age-specific, practical tips to work through social, emotional, and behavioural challenges.

It’s important for you to have support, too:

  • Connect and trade tips with other parents in our online community.
  • Reach out to experts through our free Experts Live events.
  • Learn about Parent Training and Information Centers, a free local resource.

Having challenges in any area can be a blow to a child’s confidence. Kids who struggle in school may feel “dumb” or embarrassed. It’s important to let your child know that everyone struggles with something, including you.

For more information about understanding dyscalculia, contact Anel Annandale at 021 423 0739 or via email at  anel@childpsych.co.za.

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