How to Treat the Symptoms of Dyscalculia

Following a diagnosis of dyscalculia, use these tried-and-true interventions for managing symptoms and building up math skills at home, in school, and in the workplace.

A man using a laptop on a couch with post-it notes on succeeding with ADHD at work all around him
A man using a laptop on a couch with post-it notes on succeeding with ADHD at work all around him

Dyscalculia is a learning disability that affects an individual’s ability to perform and make sense of mathematics, from counting numbers to memorizing tables and far beyond. It’s a lifelong disorder that can be diagnosed at virtually any age but is typically first recognized in childhood. As with other learning disabilities, dyscalculia is not treated with medication. Rather, specialized learning strategies and strategic accommodations are used to help children and adults with the condition compensate for difficulties and approach math confidently.

The long-range goal of any treatment strategy is straightforward: teach calculation techniques and bolster the reasoning skills needed to solve math problems. In the short-term, however, treatment should focus on removing obstacles to learning and making math easier to use quickly and accurately.

Academic Interventions for Dyscalculia

Teachers and schools can provide the following classroom accommodations to support struggling students with dyscalculia:

Allow extra time on tests. Children with dyscalculia often feel rushed during standard-length math tests. If possible, avoid timed tests of basic facts like multiplication tables, as this can be a roadblock.

Provide frequent checks during classwork. It is frustrating for a student to finish an entire worksheet, only to be told that every answer is wrong and he’ll need to do it again. Instead, teachers should check after every few problems. This way, a child can learn from mistakes and feel bolstered by a sense of improvement.

[Take This Test: Dyscalculia in Children]

List the steps for multi-step problems and algorithms. Post clearly numbered step-by-step instructions on the board, or give your student a copy she can keep at her desk.

Keep sample problems on the board. Students should also copy down examples in a notebook for reference.

Give students individual dry-erase boards to use at their desks. With this tool, students can complete one step of a problem at a time, erasing any mistakes they may make.

Use plenty of brightly colored, uncluttered reference charts and diagrams. Children with dyscalculia benefit from visual representations of math problems.

Whenever possible, allow calculator use. When testing concepts more complex than addition or subtraction, allow students to use calculators to make basic steps quicker and more accessible. Then, a student can focus on demonstrating what she knows — not how well she can add in her head.

Reduce the number of assigned problems. Assigning 10 problems, rather than a full page, is enough to assess a student’s understanding.

[Take This Test: Do You Have Dyscalculia?]

At-Home Interventions for Dyscalculia

The prospect of practicing math skills is sometimes daunting and challenging for parents, especially if you never felt like a math whiz yourself. But you don’t need to teach your child calculus; you can help him build math skills and gain confidence with simple everyday exercises, including:

Point out math wherever you can. In small, everyday ways, build in your child a sense of how numbers and equations apply to her life. When you go grocery shopping, talk about how much change you’ll get back at checkout, or how many apples you’ll need for the week’s lunches. As she gains confidence, your child can help you plan recipes, create simple budgets, or match socks when you’re doing laundry — all of which will strengthen her number sense and visual-spatial skills.

Play math games. Lots of common board games — like Candyland, Sorry, and mancala — involve counting, simple arithmetic, and fine motor skills. Play these and other similar games with your child as often as you can to help him learn to use numbers in a fun and relaxing environment.

Work with your child on managing time. A lot of children with dyscalculia struggle to recognize how much time has passed or when they should move on to the next activity. Talk to your child about these challenges, and set up a system to help her improve her sense of time. Common strategies include cell-phone reminders, visual timers (like the Time Timer), or allowing your child to take frequent breaks during homework time.

Help with homework. Multi-part math problems can seem daunting for children with dyscalculia, and without help, your child may be unsure where to start or what steps to follow. Lend a hand by breaking math homework into chunks for your child, or by doing a few problems together so he gets a sense of the required steps. Allow your child to use a calculator whenever possible, to reduce the amount of math he needs to do in his head.

Be understanding. Learn as much as you can about your child’s condition, and help him understand that his math-related challenges do not mean he’s “stupid” or “lazy.” Give positive encouragement whenever you can, and try not to get frustrated if your child is struggling with a basic concept — if he senses you’re upset, it will only make him more nervous and unwilling to practice. Praising him for his effort — as well as patiently guiding him through obstacles — will help him feel more confident and willing to tackle new concepts.

Workplace Interventions for Dyscalculia

If your dyscalculia was undiagnosed until adulthood, it’s possible that you’ve gravitated toward a career that doesn’t involve much math. But no matter how little (or how much) math you are required to do on a daily basis, simple accommodations can help you manage it and perform your job to the best of your ability. Some ideas include:

Get a calculator. If you struggle to add, subtract, or multiply in your head, ask if you can keep a calculator at your desk to help save time. If your job requires more complex calculations, request a graphing or scientific calculator.

Use scratch paper. Use scratch paper during meetings so you can work out math problems as they come up.

Post tables and charts prominently. If multiplication is necessary for your job, for example, post a multiplication table near your work area. If your job requires conversions of measures, have a table with common conversion formulas in the common workspace.

Use jigs or pre-measurement guides. Some work requires the use of machinery or equipment. In these cases, request that tools like jigs be used to help guide your work or help you measure more accurately.

Make use of planning technology. Dyscalculia can make it difficult to plan your day or know when to transition to the next activity. Time management tools, like cellphone alarms, can help you keep track of time while you’re working.

Since math is so prevalent in day-to-day life, a diagnosis of dyscalculia is never easy. But with the right accommodations — and a little understanding from parents, teachers, and supervisors — children and adults alike can build confidence in math and find the areas in which they thrive.

[Read This Next: Developmental Dyscalculia: A New Understanding of Early Warning Signs]

4 Comments & Reviews

  1. This is a problem I’ve struggled with for my whole life. I almost dropped out of high school because math was so difficult for me that I would start crying when I attempted homework, and math problems took me hours to work out. We couldn’t afford a tutor, so I just barely scraped by. I did purposefully avoid careers that involved math, which is too bad because I could have thrived in those jobs in other ways. But I am hopeful that the more we get awareness out about dyscalculia, the more that teachers can spot this/ADHD in general and hopefully help those students who are falling so far behind.

  2. I really wish more research was available on dyscalculia. As someone who struggled mightily in the early grades with math, used the help of tutors in middle school, and ended up in a technical oriented, math heavy career, I believe the term is too broad to cover all aspects of math. I still have a fear of numbers, and something as simple as averaging 3 time scores on a swim timer’s card gives me sweats. There is a lot about the way math is taught in our schools that presses hard on kids who similarly struggle with numbers — often because of limited processing memory. By 7th and 8th grade, kids here are still drilling numerical comparisons, percentages, growth, etc. Contrast that with the way math is taught in many European countries: One operation a year, and go as deep as possible. Sure you will not be doing fractions in 2nd grade, but you will be solving multi-step word problems involving addition and subtraction, writing and solving simple equations. In art, you will spend some time with a ruler and compass, constructing beautiful shapes and understanding geometry before you even started. And all that is before you even hit middle school! By contrast, our circular curriculum tries to expose kids to too many concepts, often before they can actually use those concepts in any practical way. This separates kids with good working memory from the rest. If you can remember the algorithms, you can do well in math. Instead, the focus should be narrower in the early grades, looking to build fluency not through repetition, but through applications. A different part of the brain gets engaged, and kids who “hated math” because they hated having to remember simple operations with numbers and the entrapment of long divisions and break out of the details and start to see the big picture, applying those concepts to real applications.

    I am concerned that we use the term Dyscalculia in a way that implies that kids who struggle in one kind of math cannot be successful in others. Instead, consider how different algebra is from arithmetics, boolean logic and from geometry or functional analysis. You could be truly awful at algebra and still excel in geometry (exhibit 1: my daughter).

    So we either narrowly define Dyscalculia as a struggle to operate with numbers, allowing kids to understand the blue horizons beyond pre-algebra, or we consider the specific challenge that gives a child difficulties in a particular type of math. Doing anything else invites a youth to give up the very instruments that could one day complement their talents in a highly lucrative career. Plenty architects out there who started out hating numbers but embracing geometry.

    Rather than advocating for special education for kids with dyscalculia, I would advocate for a better curriculum for *all* children, where this number focus fades and logical concepts are introduced early and gradually. In Europe, Algebra starts when kids learn to write numbers. Give them all long and gradual onramps, dial down the “checkmark teaching of advanced concepts without foundation) and watch more kids blossom in math. Even those who have a few difficult years dealing with numbers. THAT would be the INCLUSIVE way to teach math, giving ALL kids a chance at success.

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