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Dyscalculia Is More Than Just Struggling With Maths!

"I hate maths". "It's too hard." "I just don't get it!" How many times have you heard that in your maths lessons? Comments such as these may even be accompanied by screwing up the worksheets, getting up from the table or just walking out of class all together. Maths is hard for many students, and maths comes more easily to some of us than others. However, in some cases, there’s an actual learning disorder called dyscalculia behind the struggle. It's more prevalent than we think, and some of us may not have ever heard of this condition before but knowing what it is, how to recognise it and how you can support can hopefully make your maths lessons that little bit easier.



What is Dyscalculia?


Dyscalculia is a condition that makes it hard to do math and tasks that involve math. It’s not as well known or as understood as dyslexia, but some experts believe it’s just as common. That means an estimated 5 to 10 percent of people might have dyscalculia.


Dyscalculia is a condition that affects the ability to acquire arithmetical skills. Dyscalculic learners may have difficulty understanding simple number concepts, lack an intuitive grasp of numbers, and have problems learning number facts and procedures. Even if they produce a correct answer or use a correct method, they may do so mechanically and without confidence.


Dyscalculic children do not immediately associate numeric symbols with the quantity they represent.


For example, a student without dyscalculia might approach the problem 6 + 7 as 6 + 6 = 12 and then add 1 to arrive at 13. For a child with dyscalculia, 6 and 7 are merely symbols to add using any strategy they have learnt, including starting from 6 and adding the 7 on their fingers, or starting from 7 and adding 6 in single digit increments. Some may even start back at 1 before counting to the initial 6.


In summary, dyscalculic children’s lack of basic number sense impacts on every aspect of their ability to process numbers, including performing arithmetic operations, understanding fractions and algebra.


It’s not clear whether dyscalculia is as common in girls as in boys. Most experts think there’s no difference.


How to Recognise Dyscalculia


Children with dyscalculia exhibit certain behaviours that point to the trouble they experience working with numbers. Often, children with dyscalculia:


  • Do not understand place value, making errors such as writing the number one hundred and two as 1002.

  • Get very frustrated performing basic maths operations such as single digit addition, or playing board games.

  • Count on their fingers.

  • Struggle recalling times tables

  • Demonstrate poor understanding of and confuse mathematical symbols such as + - / < >

  • Can perform mathematical processes, but do not understand the underlying mathematical concepts and therefore do not retain the processes.

  • Achieve very highly in other subjects such as English and perform very poorly in mathematics

  • Can struggle telling the time (especially on a clock face)

  • Have extreme anxiety around maths or mathematical aspects of life and will try to avoid at all costs



How can a Teacher Best Support a Child with Dyscalculia?


Don't Give Attention to their Struggles


No student (or anyone for that matter) wants to have their struggles called out in front of anyone else. Having your struggles aired or having attention drawn to them could make students even more afraid of math, increase their anxiety and hurt their self-esteem. Teachers, be kind, patient and compassionate - use the tips in this blog and this book to aid your teaching practices around maths.




Use Physical Objects and Visuals


Students with a maths learning difficulty or dyscalculia have been found to improve their knowledge and skills when using manipulatives. When they play with numbers in real-world contexts, their conceptual understanding improves and they are more likely to retain the processes. Students with dyscalculia need to be cutting up paper, using blocks, coloured beads, and visual or tangible representations of number for much longer than non-dyscalculic students.


Take Baby Steps - Small Learning Projects


Importantly, it is possible to support children with dyscalculia to grow and achieve in maths by making small adjustments to teaching practice. The sense of accomplishment students feel when succeeding in maths has the potential to change the way they see themselves and their ability to learn in life. Practicing in short bursts with the child throughout the day is a great option. Even thirty seconds or a minute of quick one-on-one practice a few times a day helps students become more comfortable exploring math concepts.


Have the Right Environment & Resources


Have items available that make math less intimidating, such as graph paper, pencils, erasers, and calculators. Provide the student with a quiet place to work or allow noise-cancelling headphones - this can help reduce overload and create a far more calming environment, allowing the student to feel more comfortable when tackling a subject that already induces anxiety.


Make it Fun and Playful!


Give students time to play board games with dice, dominos and play money together. Playing games allows students to practice math skills without realizing it, taking away a lot of anxiety. Regarding money, providing more real-life applications of maths will help things sink in and this is a great opportunity to use their interests! For example, if a child really likes gaming, explore the cost of games consoles, games, downloadable content etc.


Focus on Logic


It is difficult for students with dyscalculia to memorize multiplication tables and recognize numerals. Focus on areas they might be stronger in, such as logic or vocabulary to explain math topics instead of expecting memorization to suddenly just click. Demonstrate real-world applications whenever possible.


For more support on understanding dyscalculia and developing strategies on supporting students, visit The Dyscalculia Network


supporting students with dyscalculia

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