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What Is Dyscalculia?

What Is Dyscalculia - Mathematics DisabilityDyscalculia refers to a wide range of lifelong learning disabilities involving math. There is no single type of math disability. Dyscalculia can vary from person to person. And, it can affect people differently at different stages of life.

Two major areas of weakness can contribute to math learning disabilities:

Using alternate learning methods, people with dyscalculia can achieve success.

What Are the Effects of Dyscalculia?

Disabilities involving math vary greatly. So, the effects they have on a person's development can vary just as much. For instance, a person who has trouble processing language will face different challenges in math than a person who has trouble with visual-spatial relationships. Another person may have trouble remembering facts and keeping a sequence of steps in order. This person will have yet a different set of math-related challenges to overcome.

For individuals with visual-spatial troubles, it may be hard to visualize patterns or different parts of a math problem. Language processing problems can make it hard for a person to get a grasp of the vocabulary of math. Without the proper vocabulary and a clear understanding of what the words represent, it is difficult to build on math knowledge.

When basic math facts are not mastered earlier, teens and adults with dyscalculia may have trouble moving on to more advanced math applications. These require that a person be able to follow multi-step procedures and be able to identify critical information needed to solve equations and more complex problems.

What Are the Warning Signs of Dyscalculia?

Having trouble learning math skills does not necessarily mean a person has a learning disability. All students learn at different paces. It can take young people time and practice for formal math procedures to make practical sense. So how can you tell if someone has dyscalculia? If a person continues to display trouble with the areas listed below, consider testing for dyscalculia. Extra help may be beneficial.

Dyscalculia: Warning Signs By Age

Young Children

Trouble With:
  • Difficulty learning to count
  • Trouble recognizing printed numbers
  • Difficulty tying together the idea of a number (4) and how it exists in the world (4 horses, 4 cars, 4 children)
  • Poor memory for numbers
  • Trouble organizing things in a logical way - putting round objects in one place and square ones in another

School-Aged Children

Trouble With:
  • Trouble learning math facts (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division)
  • Difficulty developing math problem-solving skills
  • Poor long term memory for math functions
  • Not familiar with math vocabulary
  • Difficulty measuring things
  • Avoiding games that require strategy

Teenagers and Adults

Trouble With:
  • Difficulty estimating costs like groceries bills
  • Difficulty learning math concepts beyond the basic math facts
  • Poor ability to budget or balance a checkbook
  • Trouble with concepts of time, such as sticking to a schedule or approximating time
  • Trouble with mental math
  • Difficulty finding different approaches to one problem

How Is Dyscalculia Identified?

Warning Signs: Dyscalculia - Grades 3-8

When a teacher or trained professional evaluates a student for learning disabilities in math, the student is interviewed about a full range of math-related skills and behaviors. Pencil and paper math tests are often used, but an evaluation needs to accomplish more. It is meant to reveal how a person understands and uses numbers and math concepts to solve advanced-level, as well as everyday, problems. The evaluation compares a person's expected and actual levels of skill and understanding while noting the person's specific strengths and weaknesses. Below are some of the areas that may be addressed:

  • Ability with basic math skills like counting, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing
  • Ability to predict appropriate procedures based on understanding patterns—knowing when to add, subtract, multiply, divide or do more advanced computations
  • Ability to organize objects in a logical way
  • Ability to measure—telling time, using money
  • Ability to estimate number quantities
  • Ability to self-check work and find alternate ways to solve problems.

How Is Dyscalculia Treated?

Helping a student identify his/her strengths and weaknesses is the first step to getting help. Following identification, parents, teachers and other educators can work together to establish strategies that will help the student learn math more effectively. Help outside the classroom lets a student and tutor focus specifically on the difficulties that student is having, taking pressure off moving to new topics too quickly. Repeated reinforcement and specific practice of straightforward ideas can make understanding easier. Other strategies for inside and outside the classroom include:

  • 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.

Help students become aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Understanding how a person learns best is a big step in achieving academic success and confidence.


This article is made possible by a grant from the American Legion Child Welfare Foundation.

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