Dyscalculia Is More Than Just Struggling With Math: What to Look for and How to Help


Dyscalculia Is More Than Just Struggling With Math: What to Look for and How to Help

“I just suck at math!” 

“Math is too hard!”

“I hate math!”

“I can’t do math!”

“I’m too dumb to do these problems!”

How many times a week do you hear frustrated declarations like this? They might be accompanied by tears or a textbook slammed shut. It’s true – math comes more easily to some of us than others. However, in some cases, there’s an actual learning disorder called dyscalculia behind the struggle. 

We spoke to Dr. Nancy Jordan, a professor in the school of education at the University of Delaware. Dr. Jordan specializes in difficulties learning math, early predictors and indicators. Here’s what we learned about dyscalculia and how best to support students struggling to learn math.

What is dyscalculia?  

“Dyscalculia refers to trouble with numbers in the same way dyslexia refers to trouble with words,” Dr. Jordan explained. Characteristics include:

1. Severe difficulties with math: 

Dr. Jordan said these difficulties are often severe and unexpected. Common challenges are difficulty counting backward, slow calculations, difficulty remembering basic math facts or rules, very weak mental calculation skills and using addition as the default operation.

2. Trouble reasoning with numbers.

“For example, a child may be slow to identify which of two numerals is bigger, especially if the numbers are close in quantity, such as 7 versus 8,” Dr. Jordan explained.  Estimation is also a challenge.

3. Poor sense of numbers.  

“It is hard to develop fluency with basic addition and subtraction facts if a student does not grasp basic number concepts,” Dr. Jordan shared. She gave the concept of cardinal value as an example. A child struggling with dyscalculia might have trouble understanding the number 6 can be broken down into smaller sets, such as 2 + 4, 5 + 1, and 3 + 3.  “Children who have difficulty operating with whole numbers typically experience later difficulties with fractions,” she added.

4. Extreme math anxiety: 

Students with dyscalculia often have a higher than average level of anxiety when it comes to math. 

What symptoms might a teacher see in the classroom?

Dr. Jordan said children who are at risk for dyscalculia can be identified as early as kindergarten. As with most learning challenges, the early the intervention, the better the outcome for the child. What are the signs of dyscalculia teachers should look for?

  • Trouble counting: Can they do one-to-one correspondence? Do they understand cardinal counting? 
  • Comparison: Can they compare numbers? Do they understand sequence? 
  • Counting strategies:  Are they only able to operate with small numbers? Do they still count on their fingers? Older children might have difficulty understanding where to place numbers on a line or graph. Place value is another very difficult concept for students with dyscalculia. 
  • Poor recall:  Students with dyscalculia often struggle with memorizing and remembering math information.
  • Avoidance or anxiety: If a student becomes very anxious when it’s time to do math or suddenly needs to go to the restroom or nurse during math, that’s a sign there might be an issue.

How can a teacher best support a child with dyscalculia?

1. Don’t call attention to their struggle

Allison Hester’s daughter was recently diagnosed with dyscalculia at age 14 after years of struggling with math. She says her daughter’s 5th-grade teacher called attention to her struggles and poor test scores. This made her even more afraid of math, increased her anxiety and hurt her self-esteem.  She urges teachers to be kind, patient, understanding and encouraging. 

2. Address math anxiety

Students with dyscalculia aren’t the only ones to have math anxiety. Talking openly about this to the class is a good way to normalize it for all students. If you see students becoming overwhelmed or flustered, take a quick break to do some stretches or take some deep breaths together as a class. 

3. Use visuals

Dr. Jordan suggests using manipulatives to represent numbers. You don’t need anything fancy –  you can even use paper clips or poker chips. Mix it up occasionally with gummy bears or other treats.

4. Incorporate number lines 

The number line is a great visual tool to help all children see relations between and among numbers,” Dr. Jordan explains. Graph paper helps students keep their number lines straight, neat and organized. 

5. Practice in short sessions

Dr. Jordan suggests practicing in short bursts with the child throughout the day. Even thirty seconds or a minute of quick one-on-one practice a few times a day helps students become more comfortable exploring math concepts. 

6. Allow helpful tools

Have items available that make math less intimidating, such as graph paper, pencils, erasers, and calculators. Provide the student with a quiet place to work or allow noise-canceling headphones. 

7. Make it playful

Give students time to play board games with dice, dominos and play money together. Playing games allows students to practice math skills without realizing it, taking away a lot of anxiety.

8. Focus on logic and language 

It is difficult for students with dyscalculia to memorize multiplication tables and recognize numerals. Focus on areas they might be stronger in, such as logic or vocabulary to explain math topics instead of expecting memorization to suddenly just click. Demonstrate real-world applications whenever possible.

9. Use technology

Allow the student to record lectures to watch or listen to again. Email copies of your notes. Encourage students to play math apps and games.

10. Offer extra support

Allison suggests making accommodations for struggling students even if they don’t have a diagnosis or IEP yet. This might include allowing extra time for tests, use of a calculator or other tools, or shortened homework assignments. 

Dyscalculia is very stressful for students, however, Dr. Jordan said “intensive intervention” by professionals trained in math learning disorders helps build an understanding of math and lowers distress. Teachers should refer struggling students for screening. Allison urges parents to be proactive in seeking screening if they notice their child struggling with math. She said the diagnosis provided her daughter with support and accommodations, but more importantly it “helped her self-esteem to know there was a reason why she is so bad at math.”

Also Read:

Dyscalculia Is More Than Just Struggling With Math: What to Look for and How to Help

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Rachael Moshman
Rachael Moshman, M.Ed. is a mom, educator, writer, and advocate for self-confidence. She’s been a teacher in classrooms of infants through adult college students. She loves pizza, Netflix and yoga.
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