Dyscalculia is a learning difficulty that affects about 6% of the population (similar stats to dyslexia but much less well known). As with Dyslexia and Dysgraphia, people with dyscalculia often have high intelligence but are mistaken for being stupid because of ignorance. They are often very good in, for example, languages, art and music (but some have trouble with reading music). It affects the way that a person relates to numbers and quantities and can cause difficulty in arithmetic (adding, subtracting, times and divide), measurement and time, spacial orientation and spacial awareness and pattern recognition among others.
People with Dyscalculia will often have trouble in estimating an answer, time or distances. This not only makes it impossible to use self correction strategies when doing maths problems but affect their daily lives. It makes keeping to a schedule and being organized, pacing yourself through an exam, estimating the time you need to get ready, planning how much time to allow for traveling to a destination or guessing how much shopping you can do with your money impossible for some.
Children find subtraction and counting backwards especially difficult as they are effectively asked to do two things at the same time: one is to keep track of how much they are starting and how much they are going back (a counting task) and secondly trying to reverse the order of the numbers as you tick them off. To get a feel for what this feels like, assign random words to every number eg, 1=chicken, 2=pan, 3= hook, 4= man , 5=run, … 10 = fish. Memorize the words in order, then ask yourself what fish take away man is and try to recite the words backwards while keeping track how manyeth word the word run is when you go forward on the rhyme. It is that complicated and uses all their working memory.
You can see that to learn number facts like times tables is tedious as numbers do not automatically have meaning or order and therefore is like remembering a very long rhyme full of nonsense words. They need strategies like counting in ones, using their fingers or tally marks to try and get to the answer of fairly simple sums even when in high school or beyond.
Because they need so much of their working memory to do these simple tasks, they have trouble following procedures that have more than one step to it and get lost in the middle of a problem. They have trouble with the language of mathematics and need extra help to understand the meaning of terms used. They have trouble figuring out from the context whether they should add, subtract, multiply or divide. They are always insecure about their answers and will often hesitate even if they have it right because every sum seems like they are spinning the wheel and hoping it will stop at “correct”.
When teaching children with Dyscalculia it is very important that you reassure them that you recognise that they aren’t stupid or mentally retarded. I use these undesirable terms because this is what they might be thinking already as they have noticed they are different but often don’t know why. Use concrete visual aids and hands on activities and materials such as quisenaire rods, counters, blocks etc as much as possible. Explain mathematical terms that the rest of the class might pick up naturally. Organize early intervention with a person specializing in teaching numeracy. Allow and encourage high school students with Dyscalculia to become adept at using their calculators and organize for them to have more time to write exams away from distractions. Make learning fun and adapt to their needs and level of understanding – build on what they can do. Drilling sets of the same problem is not going to improve their accuracy, it just leads to boredom and frustration. Rather emphasize learning for understanding as far as possible. Be patient. I often suggest that parents and children look up Dyscalculia on Youtube when I suspect that this may be the problem so that they can decide for themselves if they identify with this. It normally leads to them coming back to have a discussion on how we can help them move forward.
Although some parents are hesitant to get their children tested for learning difficulties it is important to not ignore the reality if your child has a problem. It impacts on their day to day lives and they are often painfully aware that they are different by the time they hit high school. A diagnosis may make funding available for early intervention or extra help in the classroom. In my experience most young teens are relieved when they can put a name to it and are open to learning strategies to cope and move forward. Parents can speak to their school or contact Dyslexia Australia or the dyslexia association to name a few, if they want their children to be tested. Testing needs to be done by a Psychologist who specializes in learning difficulties who will rule out all other possible causes for delay in mathematics abilities and will also be able to pinpoint some of the areas that are affected most and suggest intervention and monitoring strategies.
When choosing a tutor, make them aware of your child’s difficulty as they can then look up effective strategies and tailor their sessions to be the most effective for your child’s needs. If it has no effect, discuss with your tutor. A good tutor will do their research and will be able to try different strategies or suggest another tutor that has more experience or use a different way of teaching.
Read more here.
Here is a first hand account of what it feels like.