When Math Just Doesn’t Add Up: Understanding Dyscalculia

Learning disabilities specifically related to math are called dyscalculia. Signs include difficulty recongnizing patterns or telling time, and they are often mistaken for ADHD.

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.
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.

We sat at the kitchen table for hours with M&Ms, colored toothpicks, pennies, and other items that might hold our daughter’s attention to improve her math skills. We explained, encouraged, and rewarded. We invested in every color, shape, and size of flash card. We helped her make her own personalized sets of cards. Nothing worked. Our daughter’s blank stares and random guesses made it seem like she was choosing to add, subtract, multiply, or divide based on a whim, rather than reading the numbers and symbols. Math was a nightmare for her and for us.

A math learning disability is called dyscalculia. “All learning occurs because the brain develops specialized structures for different tasks,” says Glynis Hannell, a family psychologist and author of Dyscalculia: Action Plans for Successful Learning in Mathematics. “Some of us are blessed with brains that quickly develop networks that make math easy, obvious, and interesting. Students and adults with dyscalculia find math puzzling, frustrating, and difficult to learn. Their brains need more teaching, more targeted learning experiences, and more practice to develop these networks.”

Don’t Blame ADHD

At first, we blamed our daughter’s ADHD for her math struggles. The ADHD brain has little trouble focusing on topics it finds exciting or interesting. On the flip side, the ADHD brain finds it tough to focus on topics it doesn’t like or finds boring. Math certainly qualified as boring to our daughter. It made sense that her inattentiveness was driving her problems.

[Free Download: Could Your Child Have Dyscalculia?]

It wasn’t until we learned about dyscalculia that we realized there was more at play than just her ADHD. Hannell points out that “about 20 percent of students with ADHD also have dyscalculia. To put it in perspective, this means that 1 in 5 students with ADHD/ADD are at risk of also having this learning disability.”

Distinguishing a specific learning disability from ADHD can be challenging and intimidating for parents. Overlapping symptoms make it hard to determine where ADHD ends and the learning disability begins. Knowing what to look for can make all the difference in figuring out whether your child has ADHD and dyscalculia.

Long-time educator and dyscalculia specialist Ronit Bird lays out the symptoms of dyscalculia in The Dyscalculia Toolkit, a book designed to help teachers and parents whose children are struggling with the disorder. Bird says that there are many subtle indicators to watch for.

  • A child with dyscalculia may use his fingers to count out math solutions, long after his peers have stopped using that method.
  • He may work tirelessly on memorizing math facts, but he always has trouble recalling them.
  • Numbers and symbols are not linked to amounts and directions, making math a negotiable subject rather than a concrete one. When doing an addition problem, our daughter would look quizzically at us and announce firmly, “But I don’t want to add, I want to subtract.”
  • Making sense of money is a challenge. A child may hand a cashier a fistful of bills and change rather than counting it out.
  • Telling time on an analog clock is a problem.
  • There is a hesitation before sorting out right from left.
  • There is difficulty in recognizing patterns and sequencing numbers. Our daughter recently confessed that, when she was young, she counted 3, 2, 1, 4 instead of 1, 2, 3, 4. It took years for her to get number sequencing down.

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.

[What Does Dyscalculia Look Like in Children?]

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.

[How to Treat the Symptoms of Dyscalculia]

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.