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What Is Dyscalculia?

When the Math Doesn’t Add Up



Dyscalculia is a learning disability that covers a wide range of math difficulties, says Roseanne Crowe, head of the math department at The Benchmark School in Media, PA. “There is no universal definition for dyscalculia. It can cover a wide range of difficulties, and characteristics can vary from child to child,” she explains.

Pat Pustizzi, a basic skills teacher from southern New Jersey adds, “Dyscalculia often occurs with other disabilities such as ADHD,” which makes it hard to diagnose.

Signs and symptoms

The Dyscalculia Toolkit by educator Ronit Bird identifies some signs that your child may have dyscalculia:

  • uses fingers to count long after peers have stopped
  • has trouble with recall of math facts after memorization
  • does not link numbers and symbols to amounts and directions
  • cannot make sense of money
  • has trouble telling time on an analog clock
  • hesitates before determining right from left
  • has difficulty with pattern and sequence recognition

Crowe adds that other red flags for the disorder include anxiety about and avoidance of math as well as difficulty with multi-digit computation, problem solving and mental math. She reminds parents that the difficulty can look different for every child and be hard to pinpoint.

Sean Sweeney, a math teacher at The Woodlynde School in Strafford, PA, advises parents and educators, “Look for difficulty learning and remembering math facts and processes long-term as well as transposition of numbers.”

How to help

Crowe suggests that parents research dyscalculia on their own and reach out to their child’s teacher with concerns. “Ask what instructional practices are used at school to address your child's difficulties and how you as a parent can reinforce these practices at home. Avoid homework battles, and if your child experiences difficulties, encourage him to write a question or note on the homework to communicate his difficulties to the math teacher."

Pustizzi also encourages parents to have their child evaluated by the school district’s child study team.

Sweeney agrees, “If your child experiences significant difficulty with math, get on top of the situation as early as possible. I would highly suggest that any student with a math disability get individualized help in math, either in school from teachers or through tutoring if necessary.”

Pustizzi recommends some common strategies that teachers use to help students with dyscalculia. Parents can adapt these strategies to meet their own child’s needs:

  • Use concrete examples that connect math to real life to strengthen your child’s number sense, for example, sorting buttons or other familiar objects.
  • Use pictures or manipulatives when solving math problems.
  • Review a recently learned skill before moving on to a new one, and explain how the skills relate to one another.
  • Supervise work and encourage your child to talk through the problem-solving process to ensure he’s using the right math rules and formulas.
  • Break new lessons into smaller parts. Teachers call this process chunking.
  • Let your child use graph paper to help keep numbers lined up.
  • Use an extra piece of paper to cover up most of what’s on a math test so your child can focus on one problem at a time.
  • Play math-related games designed to help your child have fun and feel more comfortable with math.

Parents can use a variety of resources to support their children at home, such as concrete and virtual manipulatives. Counters, dice, dominoes and online sites such as MathPlayground, Greg Tang Math and Kahn Academy — in addition to teacher-created videos that demonstrate strategies — are valuable learning tools.

Like most learning differences, an individualized approach works best for dyscalculia. Find what works for your child, and the math will start to add up.

Janet Tumelty is a South Jersey mom and freelance writer. 

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