Dyscalculia The Math Disability

I always knew that I was bad at math. I was an average to strong student in every other subject, and I even excelled when it came to memorizing things, but math was so bad for me that, to this day I don’t even like to think about it.

What I didn’t know was that math disabilities, just like reading disabilities, are real and that the term for learning disabilities characterized by difficulties with mathematical skills is dyscalculia. There are lots of forms of math disabilities, but they affect many children and adults, and can, in many cases be helped. For me, understanding math came when it was put into other contexts, for example, it was only after I took physics that I understood solving simple algebraic expressions. Putting math into other contexts is just one of many strategies that can be used with students who suffer from dyscalculia, but I will get to more after I’ve explained some of the symptoms and warning signs. I want to note that I was never formally diagnosed with dyscalculia, but as I read over the warning signs I am inclined to think I should have been.

Dyscalculia, like many disabilities, can manifest itself differently at different age levels. When children with this disability are young they might have difficulty learning the meaning of numbers, trouble with tasks like sorting objects by shape, size or color; recognizing groups and patterns; and comparing and contrasting using concepts like smaller/bigger or taller/shorter and even struggle when learning to count. School-age children with dyscalculia may have difficulty solving basic math problems using addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. They struggle to remember and retain basic math facts (i.e. times tables), and have trouble figuring out how to apply their knowledge and skills to solve math problems. Children with math-related disabilities might also understand the needed math facts, but have difficulty putting them down on paper in an organized way. Many teenagers and adults with dyscalculia may have difficulty moving on to more advanced math applications. They many struggle to follow multi-step procedures, visualize patterns, or identify critical information needed to solve equations and more complex problems.

The warning signs for dyscalculia are varied, and it is important to remember that when a child is struggling with math, it does not necessarily mean that they have a disability – it is important to remember that all children learn all things at different paces and in different ways. Still, identifying dyscalculia is an important first step in helping a child overcome this disability. If a child displays the following signs, getting additional might be beneficial:

  • Good at speaking, reading, and writing, but slow to develop counting and math problem-solving skills
  • Good memory for printed words, but difficulty reading numbers, or recalling numbers in sequence
  • Good with general math concepts, but frustrated when specific computation and organization skills need to be used
  • Trouble with the concept of time-chronically late, difficulty remembering schedules, trouble with approximating how long something will take
  • Poor sense of direction, easily disoriented and easily confused by changes in routine
  • Poor long term memory of concepts-can do math functions one day, but is unable to repeat them the next day
  • Poor mental math ability-trouble estimating grocery costs or counting days until vacation
  • Difficulty playing strategy games like chess, bridge or role-playing video games
  • Difficulty keeping score when playing board and card games.

Luckily there are some strategies that parents, teachers and tutors can use to help students with dyscalculia:

  • Use graph paper for students who have difficulty organizing ideas on paper.
  • Work on finding different ways to approach math facts; i.e., instead of just memorizing the multiplication tables, explain that 8 x 2 = 16, so if 16 is doubled, 8 x 4 must = 32.
  • Practice estimating as a way to begin solving math problems.
  • Introduce new skills beginning with concrete examples and later moving to more abstract applications.
  • For language difficulties, explain ideas and problems clearly and encourage students to ask questions as they work.
  • Provide a place to work with few distractions and have pencils, erasers and other tools on hand as needed.

The most important thing you can do for a student with dyscalculia is help them identify their strengths and weaknesses, this will build confidence and give students a sense of purpose and focus.

Added by: Jennifer Kirmes