It's not unusual for a child to have a tough time with math homework now and then. But if they have problems with numbers or low math test scores yet does well in other subjects, they could have a math learning disability called dyscalculia.
It's a brain-related condition that makes basic arithmetic hard to learn. It may run in families, but scientists haven't found any genes related to it.
Up to 7% of elementary school students have dyscalculia. Research suggests it's as common as dyslexia -- a reading disorder -- but not as well understood. In fact, kids and parents sometimes call it “math dyslexia,” but this can be confusing because dyscalculia is a completely different condition. Your school or doctor may call it a “mathematics learning disability” or a “math disorder.”
Kids with dyscalculia may lose track when counting. They may count on their fingers long after kids the same age have stopped doing it. They may find it hard to know at a glance how many things are in a group -- a skill called "subitizing" that helps you see a 5 and a 3 after you roll the dice, without really counting.
Even their basic understanding of numbers, or “number sense,” may not work well. This can make it hard to quickly tell, for example, if the number 8 is a bigger number than 6. A child with dyscalculia also may have a lot of anxiety about numbers. For example, they may panic at the thought of math homework.
School-aged kids with dyscalculia may find it hard to:
- Estimate things, like how long something takes or the ceiling height
- Understand math word problems
- Learn basic math, like addition, subtraction, and multiplication
- Link a number (1) to its corresponding word (one)
- Understand fractions
- Understand graphs and charts (visual-spatial concepts)
- Count money or make change
- Remember phone numbers or ZIP codes
- Tell time or read clocks
Any number-based or math-based activity -- even outside school -- can frustrate kids with dyscalculia. For example, a child with this learning disability may get upset with games that require constant counting or scorekeeping.
If your child has a hard time with numbers, see their doctor to rule out any vision or hearing problems that might affect their ability to learn.
Then talk to your child's math teacher to understand where they are having trouble. Also talk to other teachers to find out if they are struggling in other areas.
If you think your child may have dyscalculia after talking with their doctor and teachers, make an appointment to see a learning specialist. They'll talk with you and your child and test their math abilities to help determine if they have it. Testing is the only way to know for sure if your child has the condition. The test is sometimes called educational or psychosocial testing. The tests look at four main things:
- Computational skills: The ability to do math operations. Younger kids may get addition or subtraction problems, and older kids might get harder problems like multiplication, division, and fractions.
- Math fluency: The ability to easily recall basic math facts, like 5 x 3 = 15, or how to multiply fractions
- Mental computation: The ability to do math problems in your head
- Quantitative reasoning: The ability to understand and solve word problems
An expert can look at these tests and put together a report that can help you address the needs of your child.
Learning specialists, educational psychologists, or neuropsychologists who specialize in dyscalculia recommend the following to help a child's understanding of math:
- Specially designed teaching plans
- Math-based learning games
- Practicing math skills a lot more often than other students
How Can I Help My Child?
Here are some things you can try to help your child better learn and understand math and lower their anxiety:
- Let them use their fingers and paper when they count.
- Make sure they have the right tools, like an easy-to-use calculator and plenty of erasers.
- Use graph paper. It helps keep columns and numbers straight and neat.
- Use rhythm and music to teach math facts and steps.
- Get an experienced math tutor to help.
- Draw pictures of math word problems.
- Schedule computer time to play math games.
- Praise their hard work, not the outcome.
- Talk with them about their learning disability.
- Teach them ways to manage anxiety.
Talk to teachers privately about your child's condition and educational needs. You may want to ask for the following:
- A quiet work space
- Use of a calculator during math class and tests
- Extra time to complete tests
- The option to record lectures