What Is Dyscalculia?

While many children wrestle with math, those having chronic difficulty with basic math concepts like recognizing numbers, learning to count, estimating or telling time may be struggling with dyscalculia.

Dyscalculia is a developmental learning disorder that results in math skills that are well below average for a person’s age, according to the American Psychological Association. Between 3% and 7% of the population has dyscalculia, according to a 2019 study.

“They have difficulty completing math calculations, take a longer time than their peers to solve math problems and often feel anxiety around anything that involves math or computation,” says Liz Matheis, a certified school psychologist and consultant in New Jersey.

Thankfully, there are many things parents and teachers can do to recognize dyscalculia and ensure students get help.

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Recognizing Dyscalculia

It can be very challenging for children with dyscalculia to complete multi-step problems like multi-digit multiplication or long division, Michelle Paster, an educational therapist and consultant in Massachusetts, wrote in an email.

“Often, students with dyscalculia have underlying processing deficits, such as working memory, visual processing and differentiating between parts and the whole,” Paster says.

The relationship between mathematical concepts and processing is important, according to Paster.

“For example, when a student does a long division problem, there are many processes working simultaneously,” she says. “The student needs to know how to estimate, multiply, do mental math, and know where to place the numbers and line up the numbers. For a student with dyscalculia, any one of these steps could be challenging and putting them together can be downright frustrating.”

Dyscalculia should not be confused with a dislike of math or math anxiety, Paster says. Rather, “it is a diagnosed disability regarding how the brain functions with numbers. Dyscalculia is known to run in families, and people with dyscalculia are often also diagnosed with dyslexia or ADHD,” she says.

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Diagnosing Dyscalculia

A dyscalculia diagnosis often starts when a teacher observes a student struggling in math, says Caroline Farkas, a math education specialist and founder of Doodles and Digits, which offers materials to make math visual.

“I would start interventions at the classroom level (via) small-group or one-on-one instruction to help close the gaps in student learning,” Farkas wrote in an email. If teachers are unable to help a student improve, a school psychologist can perform a formal evaluation and determine if a child has dyscalculia or other learning disabilities.

A full evaluation for dyscalculia will test your child’s computation skills (the ability to do math operations), math fluency (the ability to memorize and recall math facts), mental computation (sometimes called “mental math”) and quantitative reasoning (problem-solving skills).

Treating Dyscalculia

Treatment for dyscalculia involves accommodations in the classroom and sometimes an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, Farkas says.

“These accommodations can include visual aides and math manipulatives,” she says. “Students also usually receive small-group instruction to target specific skills with either their classroom teacher or a special education teacher. They also can receive preferential seating in the classroom, additional time on assignments and extended time on tests.”

The use of a calculator can be an essential accommodation as well, Paster says. “Even when people with dyscalculia have memorized math facts, they often do not have confidence in their recall,” she says. “Calculators take that step away and allow teachers to test the student’s understanding of mathematical concepts rather than facts.”

Dr. Santoshi Billakota, a neurologist and clinical assistant professor at New York University’s medical school, says early treatment should consist of symptom-specific intervention by educational specialists and therapists.

“Therapy should be continued as long as it is appropriate and necessary in the judgment of the interdisciplinary team caring for the child,” she says, adding that the student should be reevaluated at least once a year.

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How Parents Can Help

Here are a few things parents can do to help their child with dyscalculia at home, according to Farkas:

— Enforce a positive growth mindset. Be supportive and positive about math within your household. If children with dyscalculia have a negative attitude toward math, parents can help them by being positive about learning and reinforcing the belief that math is something they can practice and learn.

— Embrace math manipulatives. Have math manipulatives at home for your child to use when completing homework. These can include cubes, clipart or an abacus. Manipulatives help children visualize math problems in a tangible way.

— Break down homework. Help your child break down their homework so it is less overwhelming. For example, says Farkas, “I usually tell parents to focus on one problem at a time. Write that one problem on another piece of paper or cover the rest of the page to help the student not to get overwhelmed.”

— Make math relatable. Help your child connect math to things that are fun. Playing board games at home or linking math to everyday activities like cooking or baking often works. Students are much more willing to practice math when games or snacks are involved.

— Be an advocate. Your child’s teacher will be a valuable resource, so ask how you can help at home to specifically support the topics being discussed in class. If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s learning in math, request a formal evaluation from the school’s psychologist.

Dyscalculia Resources for Parents

Here are some resources to learn more about dyscalculia:

Understood is a nonprofit dedicated to providing parents with credible information about learning differences, including dyscalculia.

— The Child Mind Institute is a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders.

Dyscalculia.org is a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to advancing understanding and treatment of dyscalculia.

Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.

More from U.S. News

Understanding Different Types of Learning Disabilities

How Kids Can Get Dysgraphia Help in School

Affirmations for Kids: How Parents Can Support Their Child’s Learning

What Is Dyscalculia? originally appeared on usnews.com

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