What is Dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a term used to describe specific difficulties with mathematics, and literally translated it means ‘disorder in calculation’. Kids with dyscalculia struggle to master the basics of mathematical thinking – despite having been taught in the same way and often being as intelligent as their peers. It is a lifelong learning disability, just like dyslexia, and though it is not heard about as often, it has been found to affect about 5-7% of the population. In fact, you’re likely to find at least one child with dyscalculia in every class of 30 children! 

Developmental Dyscalculia is present from birth, and its origins are neurological. It has strong genetic influence on the development of mathematical skills, and the immediate family members of a student with dyscalculia are 10 times more likely to have dyscalculia than the general population.

What does it look like?

Mathematics is a complex area of learning, requiring a wide-range of skills in different domains. So what it looks like often varies from person to person, and there is no single form or presentation. In fact, some kids may struggle only with one area of mathematics and perform well at others. Some of the mathematical domains kids with dyscalculia struggle with may include any of the following, all required for mathematical competence:

  1. Counting
  2. Calculating
  3. Spatial Reasoning
  4. Verbal Reasoning
  5. Concentration
  6. Memory

For the majority of people with dyscalculia however, they have a fundamental difficulty acquiring ‘number sense’ – the intuitive grasp of numbers, which then leads to pervasive problems with other mathematical concepts.

Number sense is seemingly intuitive to people without dyscalculia. Without number sense though, kids can struggle to know if a number is larger or smaller than another, or can’t tell at a glance small quantities (e.g. having to count one-by-one how many apples in a fruit bowl rather than looking and immediately seeing 3 apples).  These kids will be truly puzzled by the ‘relative values’ of numbers i.e., which numbers are close together and which are far apart.

Here are some signs and symptoms among children and adolescents that may indicate dyscalculia:

Preschoolers
  • Difficulty learning to count compared to peers: skipping numbers, losing track, or confusing the order of numbers.
  • Not seeming to understand the meaning of counting e.g. asking for 4 blocks and being handed a large group of blocks without counting them out.
  • Difficulty with sequences and patterns e.g. ordering blocks from biggest to smallest or tallest to shortest.
Primary School-Aged Children

Number & Numeracy Difficulties:

  • Cannot recognise small quantities without counting one-by-one. Most people can automatically recognise up to 4 or 5 randomly scattered objects without counting (referred to as subitising)
  • Cannot grasp the value of relative numbers e.g. which amount is bigger than the other and if it is a great deal bigger/smaller or only marginally so
  • Difficulty with mental calculations or using fingers/tally marks to calculate simple totals

Spatial Organisation & Number Positioning

  • Errors writing correct number forms
  • Reversing numbers and confusion about the difference between 13 & 31 and using them interchangeably
  • Unaware of differences between number relationships e.g. if solving 6 – 2 & 2 – 6 may provide answer of 4 both times, or if dividing – am I dividing 9 by 3 or 3 by 9?
  • Putting numbers in the wrong places e.g. when copying from the board
  • Poor setting out of calculations on page

 Mathematics Language

  • Confuses comparison terms ‘equal to’, ‘smaller than’ & ‘larger than’
  • Difficulty talking about and explaining mathematical processes
  • Difficulty generalising learning from one situation to another
  • Makes mistakes while interpreting word problems

Memory of Mathematics Facts & Procedures

  • Difficulty learning or recalling basic math facts
  • Trouble remembering or confusing symbols e.g. + −  ÷ ×
  • Forgetting procedures quickly that were previously learnt and understood
  • Working out multiplication tables by addition or reciting ‘times tables’ rather than automatic recall
  • Forgetting the question before finding an answer when doing mental maths
High School-Aged Children
  • Struggling to interpret charts and graphs and the mathematical concepts taught using these visual methods e.g. fractions
  • Difficulty applying maths to other concepts like money e.g. working out tips or discounted prices
  • Difficulty measuring quantities out for ingredients when cooking
  • Difficulty with understanding & calculating speeds, distances
  • Difficulty with geometry, algebra and other complex mathematical concepts

Supporting your child with dyscalculia

It is important to remember there are many reasons why a child may have difficulty with mathematics, so assessment by a psychologist is key to correctly understand what is happening and allow for adequate, appropriately directed support. Assessments allow you and your child to understand how they learn and allow you to put specific processes in place to best support their development and education at home and school!

Outside of these, you can support your child through play! Play helps kids develop a growth mindset and positive attitude towards challenges & learning – particularly if mathematics seems a ‘scary’ or ‘frustrating’ area due to difficulties or poor performance at school.

Here are some of our favourite ways to have fun while supporting your child with dyscalculia at home:

Before Starting School
  • Introduce numbers into conversations about their world & everyday life – it’s a great way to build familiarity and awareness of the way numbers are used in life e.g. talk about the number of legs on people or animals, or how an elevator or home addresses use numbers.
  • Play sorting and matching games e.g. sorting shapes according to certain attributes – ‘put all shapes smaller than that shape in this pile, and all shapes bigger in that pile’ and use comparison language like bigger than, smaller than, and equal to.
  • Learn the days of the week and months – a great way to begin learning about sequences
Throughout School Years
  • Play games that involve telling the time or counting money to practise using numbers in everyday life
  • Board games that require numbers and instructions can be beneficial for concentration, memory, planning and problem solving skills, whilst using mathematical concepts in a fun, comfortable environment where mistakes are a learning opportunity!

References

Hannell, G. (2013). Dyscalculia: Action plans for successful learning in mathematics (2nd ed.). Abingdon, Oxon;New York, N.Y;: Routledge.

Babtie, P., & Emerson, J. (2015). Understanding dyscalculia and numeracy difficulties: A guide for parents, teachers and other professionals. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.