When Things Don't Add Up: Dyscalculia

If math is a nightmare for your child, he may have a learning disability. Learn the signs of dyscalculia, and what to do if your child has it.

No Cure, Just Treatment

There is no cure for dyscalculia. It's not a phase a child will outgrow. Like the color of a person's hair, it's part of who she is. It's the way her brain processes math. By the time most children are diagnosed with dyscalculia, they have a shaky math foundation. The goals of diagnosis and treatment are to fill in as many gaps as possible and to develop coping mechanisms that can be used throughout life.

If you suspect that your child has dyscalculia, talking with her teacher is a great place to start. She should be able to tell you how well your child is doing in math, as well as how she compares to her peers.

If your child's teacher isn't familiar with dyscalculia, don't be discouraged. The disorder is not well known or understood. Many teachers don't know the signs. They may attribute problems in math to laziness or to not being math-minded. "If the teacher initially says nothing is wrong, don't give up until your child's math abilities have been evaluated by the teacher or a learning specialist," says Hannell.

Though schools and private testing centers have different approaches to determining dyscalculia, a test should identify a child's math ability and skills compared to those of other children his age. A combination of tests will identify specific areas of weakness. It's important to remember that every child with dyscalculia has different strengths and weaknesses.

Once your child's needs have been determined, a learning specialist will develop a plan that targets them. "I tailor the lesson to the individual needs of the child, focusing on any misconceptions he may have, and finding the gaps in understanding that need to be filled," says Bird. "The goal is to create a stable foundation on which to build more skills."

Math worksheets aren't necessarily the answer in helping a child with dyscalculia. Kids need a hands-on approach to learning math skills. Bird has written several books focused on games that use concrete materials, like Cuisenaire Rods, colored glass stones, dice, or dominoes, along with a multi-sensory approach. For example, using glass stones, a child can begin to look at numbers differently by breaking them into sets and rearranging them on colorful mats. Six dots on a domino can be grouped into 2 sets of 3, 3 sets of 2, or 1 set of 2 and 1 set of 4. Grouping and regrouping is important. It helps a child see numbers in workable ways. She can take this new skill and apply it to simple math problems.

The long-range goal is to teach calculation techniques and reasoning that use math principles to solve math problems. Our dyscalculic daughter is in high school now, and still doesn't have her times-tables mastered. But she understands how to multiply. When faced with a multiplication problem she doesn't know the answer to, say 8 x 9, she goes back to one she does know, like 8 x 5, then adds 4 more groups of 8 to solve the problem.

Deciding to have your child evaluated for learning disabilities is hard for parents. We don't want to stick labels on our children. Bird answers this concern, pointing out that when "no one has investigated the nature or the causes of significant difficulties in math, children are often given the unofficial labels of ‘lazy' or ‘disengaged' or even ‘stupid,' which can damage their self-esteem. Many children who have been diagnosed with dyscalculia find it liberating to be told that there is a specific cause for their challenges. The condition is something they were born with, and is beyond their control, like the color of their eyes or the shape of their fingers. It helps to know that."

We have seen this with our daughter. Knowing that dyscalculia was just a part of how her brain was wired, like her ADHD, helped her accept and understand her many math challenges. It also motivated her to work hard and find new ways to conquer math. Our reward came last summer, when she found out that she had passed the California High School Exit Exam on her first try. For that day, she was master of math.

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