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:

Counting
Calculating
Spatial Reasoning
Verbal Reasoning
Concentration
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 order of numbers.
Don’t appear 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 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 (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 count 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, provides answer of 4 both times, or if dividing – am I dividing 9 by 3 or 3 by 9?
Putting numbers in the wrong places when copying
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 all their ‘times tables’ rather than automatic recall
Forgetting the question before finding an answer when doing mental maths

Highschool Aged Children

Struggling to interpret charts, graphs and fractions concepts taught using these methods
Difficulty applying maths to other concepts like money e.g. working out tips
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 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. talking about the number of legs on people or animals, or how an elevator or houses use numbers.
Play sorting and matching games like sorting shapes according to certain attributes e.g. put all shapes smaller than that shape in this pile, and all shapes bigger in that pile – use comparison language like bigger than, smaller than.
Learn the days of the week and months – a great way to begin learning about sequences

At School

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 planning and problem solving skills, whilst using their 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.