What is Dyscalculia? And How Can You Learn to Spot It?

what is dyscalculia

Takeaway: Dyscalculia is a learning difference that influences how a child understands, learns, and uses maths and numbers. Children with dyscalculia don’t quite get how numbers work — e.g., what they mean, how to count and compare them, and how they connect with the real world. This means they struggle with maths and have problems with other numbers-related tasks like telling time, dealing with money, and keeping score while playing games. Not all children who struggle with maths have dyscalculia, though, so you’ll need an educational psychologist to help you know for sure.

Meet Olivia: a bright, personable, outgoing child who just can’t get the hang of maths.

Homework becomes a nightmare as she struggles to understand and remember even the most basic concepts. Her mum has tried negotiating, punishing, and pleading, but nothing seems to work. And most of these maths sessions end in frustration and tears, with mum feeling helpless and Olivia feeling stupid. What’s most confusing (and heartbreaking) is that she’s great at so many other things like sports and music!

Why does Olivia struggle primarily with maths? Well, she has a learning difference called dyscalculia.

This is a developmental difference that makes it harder for children to process and understand numbers and arithmetic. And these issues show up most often in maths class.

But remember that a child can struggle with maths for more than one reason.

For example, if she has issues processing language, she’ll struggle in a different way to someone who has issues with visual-spatial perception, or with remembering facts, or following a sequence of steps. Dyscalculia is sometimes called ‘maths dyslexia,’ so people confuse it with the more commonly known ‘dyslexia’. And it’s often also mixed up with ‘maths anxiety’ as well. But all these are different diagnoses.

So, how do you spot dyscalculia?

You’ll usually notice these groups of traits…

1. Trouble with mathematics

A child with dyscalculia can often speak, read, and write well, but struggles with maths and numbers.

  • Doesn’t ‘get’ numbers: She’ll find it hard to learn them when she’s young, and even afterwards, she still won’t ‘get’ them. For example, she’ll find it hard to quickly figure out if ‘9’ is bigger or smaller than ‘3’. Or she’ll struggle to count things out and will need to use her fingers long when all her classmates can do it in their heads. (Incidentally, she’ll also find it hard to count backwards.) She also might not be able to connect numbers to objects — for example, to understand that ‘5’ can apply to 5 apples, 5 pencils, 5 friends, etc.
  • Can’t remember maths facts. For example, she’ll struggle to learn her times tables and will find it hard to apply them to solve a problem.
  • Can’t understand maths concepts. For example, fractions may seem unintelligible to her. She might find it hard to figure out the place value of a number. She might struggle to decipher graphs and charts. And she may not be able to see parallel logic, like how adding the width and length of a rectangle and doubling it is the same as adding together all the sides.
  • Struggles with maths procedures. She might understand ‘addition’ but struggle to get that 6 + 2 is the same as 2 + 6. She’ll probably need help with more complicated things like ‘long division’. And even if she can do long division one day, she might struggle to do it again in a week’s time. She’ll especially struggle with procedures that involve an extended series of steps.

2. Trouble telling time

She might find it hard to tell time — either on an analogue clock or digitally. So she’ll often be late for things, will struggle to remember schedules, and will hate trying to estimate how long any activity will take.

3. Trouble handling money

She’ll shy away from mental maths, which makes it hard to figure out how much to pay for things or how much change she should be getting.

4. Trouble playing games

She’ll get frustrated when trying to keep score while playing games. And certain games (like cards) might rely too much on numbers for her to enjoy playing them.

5. Trouble with other day-to-day things

She might have problems remembering phone numbers or postcodes. And she might struggle to make estimates to do with numbers, like how tall her friend is or how far a shop is from home.

Is there a way to make numbers and arithmetic more relatable?

Numbers on paper are effectively just squiggles. So, help your child by grounding maths in the real world. You might try a multisensory approach by using things like marbles, stones, or dice. For instance, she could use the marbles to practise counting, the stones to practise grouping and regrouping objects, and the dice to play games that subtly have her practise arithmetic. In the process, she’ll internalise how numbers work in the real world and then apply these lessons in class. For older children, you could explore apps that gamify maths and make it more accessible. The trick is to find the right balance between (lovingly) pushing maths and letting her do the host of other things that bring her joy and meaning.

Does your child have dyscalculia? Ask an expert.

If your child struggles with some of the issues discussed in this post, consider consulting with a trained educational psychologist. The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London.

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