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Dyscalculia may be causing your child’s math problems

Tiernan McKay is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. Her writing has appeared in magazines such as Alive!, Occupational Health and Safety, Restaurants and Institutions, Tampa Bay and Arizona Woman. Right now, she is either ridi...

dealing with dyscalculia

If your child struggles with math, a real neurocognitive disorder may be to blame. Dyscalculia is similar to dyslexia but impacts math ability rather than reading.
Math disability is real
Girl frustrated with math homework

When a child is struggling — in any subject a lot of parents immediately wonder if their child has a "learning disability." Math can be a touchy subject for kids and adults alike. For some, numbers just don’t make sense but every child can learn math if they are exposed to a teaching method that suits their learning style even if dyscalculia is a factor.


What is dyscalculia?

If you haven’t heard of dyscalculia, you’re not alone. Few people know what it is, even though plenty of families deal with math difficulties and/or anxiety. "Dyscalculia [is] also known as mathematics disability," says Marilyn Curtain-Phillips, M.Ed., author of Math Attack: How to Reduce Math Anxiety in the Classroom, at Work, Home and Everyday Life. "This is a specific learning disability involving innate difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic."

Signs of dyscalculia

According to Curtain-Phillips, the Center for Teaching/Learning of Mathematics (CTLM) identifies symptoms of dyscalculia as an inability to grasp and remember math concepts, rules, formulas, sequence (order of operations), and basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts. Poor long term memory (retention and retrieval) of concept mastery is also a sign of dyscalculia. In other words, a child may be able to perform math operations one day, but then draws a blank the next.

Read about 6 tips to make math more fun >>

Math anxiety

When a child has difficulty with math, whether dyscalculia is to blame or not, anxiety is a very real issue. For some, just the thought of having to complete a monetary transaction or keep score during a board game is a panic-worthy situation. This presents a great opportunity for parents and teachers to work together to determine how the child learns and what teaching methods are best able to meet her needs. "Possible strategies include providing fun, stress-free opportunities for the child to use math skills in daily life such as cooking, shopping, allowance and technology games and drawing pictures and diagrams when solving problems," says Laurie Wagner, director of education for Reading and Language Arts Centers (RLAC).

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Practical tips

Dyscalculia isn’t a cut-and-dry condition. It can manifest in a number of ways and each case is unique. "As you and your child work on strategies for lowering math-related stress and strengthening math skills, also be sure to identify your child's strengths and areas of success and provide many opportunities for your child to excel in these areas as well," says Wagner. Whether your child falls within the dyscalculia spectrum or just needs a little extra assistance, you can help him with math by:

  • Creating a calm and supportive environment.
  • Providing plenty of math games and manipulatives.
  • Allowing your child to learn through play.
  • Using materials such as Teach Your Child the Multiplication Tables, which uses patterns to teach math facts.
  • Presenting new information in small, digestible chunks rather than in overwhelming waves.

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If you need encouragement, keep in mind that Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein both struggled with math, so there is definitely no limit to your child’s potential, even if dyscalculia presents obstacles.

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