Children often struggle with math in school. However, if that struggle is far outside the norm, a mathematics-specific learning disorder known as dyscalculia may be contributing.
Dyscalculia can be spotted by these subtle yet persistent signs. A child can exhibit difficulty with:
- Recognizing numbers or numerical patterns
- Learning to count or keeping track while counting
- Learning basic math functions
- Understanding word problems
- Estimating the duration of tasks or dimensions of objects
If you suspect your child has dyscalculia, read on for a more detailed explanation of 9 common symptoms. They can be very subtle, and there are other contributing factors to rule out.
How Do You Know If You Have Dyscalculia?
It can be very daunting to be in a situation where you believe your child could have dyscalculia on some level. Do they need more or different types of support to learn math? Knowing what dyscalculia is and being able to identify it clearly will allow you as a parent to support your child’s learning most effectively.
While many refer to dyscalculia as “math dyslexia”, it is not quite the same as dyslexia.
Dyscalculia.org defines this math learning disability as:
“A syndrome or collection of characteristics that are marked by underachievement in math in spite of good ability in speaking, reading, and writing.”
So, it is a bit more than getting your numbers jumbled up. We’ve heard engineers or accountants get a number backwards and claim “oops, number dyslexia.” That is not dyscalculia. Many people struggle with mathematics. Many kids struggle in math class. A key differentiator between just being challenged and diagnosable dyscalculia is a gap in ability and aptitude.
Dyscalculia is known as the math learning disability and most commonly presents itself when a child has been tracking normal progression levels in other subjects like reading and writing but is consistently taking longer to understand concepts of mathematics.
Before continuing on to signs and symptoms, let us get grounded in the commonality of dyscalculia. Many experts agree that it can be as common as dyslexia, meaning it affects anywhere between 5 to 10 percent of people. Experts also agree that there is no conclusive evidence that proves it affects one gender more than the other. That is, it affects boys and girls equally.
As a child grows and moves through the levels of math schooling and mathematical concepts, signs of dyscalculia will present themselves in different ways. We’ll start here now with the ways it shows up in young children before moving on to how it appears once the math classes become more challenging.
A child with the learning disability dyscalculia will have difficulty recognizing numbers and developing math skills in a couple of ways.
- Inability to relate number symbols to words
- Weak “number sense”
For example, they may be able to read, write, and say the word “five” just fine, but they would not recognize the symbol “5.” This can take shape in many ways. A child with dyscalculia may have trouble reading things like:
- Phone numbers
- Post codes
- The date
An inability to recognize numbers will also likely contribute to a weakened “number sense.” In other words, this is when a child struggles to understand that the number 8 is higher than the number 5. These small math skills errors are common for those struggling with this learning disability.
A weak number sense will also affect a child’s time and/or spatial awareness. A child with dyscalculia will have difficulty estimating things like:
- How long it takes to perform a task, or how much time they’ve spent doing something
- How tall the ceiling is, or how far away something is.
Struggling with number sense may make itself apparent as your child begins to learn about the number line in class. But even before learning about the number line, they will likely have difficulty learning to count.
Dyscalculia in your child won’t make itself known until they start learning about numbers and basic math facts. Usually, a child’s first encounter with numbers is when they learn how to count things. A child with dyscalculia will have difficulty with this and will take longer than his/her peers.
This does not just stem from an inability to read or remember numbers; it comes from difficulty comprehending the value of them. Dyscalculia inhibits basic math facts, for example someone’s ability to understand the difference between having 2 of something versus having 3 of something.
Not only will a young child with dyscalculia struggle to learn to count and basic math skills, but it will also seem as if they don’t understand the meaning of counting at all. For example, if you ask them to hand you 5 blocks, they will just hand you a bunch of blocks without taking the time to count them out.
If a child isn’t picking up the ability to count as quickly as others in their environment, it could be a sign of dyscalculia, but it is usually too early to judge at this point in their development.
Children with the learning disability dyscalculia do eventually learn to count, especially with the proper support in place. Along the way though, another sign of dyscalculia may make itself apparent.
While they can count, children with dyscalculia may often lose track when counting to higher numbers. This commonly makes itself evident when a child needs a visual aid for counting long after their peers have graduated from counting on their fingers.
It is also common for children with dyscalculia to skip over numbers while counting. This is another sign that they are struggling to conceptualize the number line and the relative value of numbers or others.
A young child with dyscalculia will have difficulty associating a number to a group of things or similar math problems related to grouping and patterns. In other words, they will have difficulty grasping the concept of quantity. For example, they will struggle to associate the symbol “3” to a group of three cookies or pencils.
This is a skill known as subitizing. It’s our ability to recognize the number of items in a small group without counting each one individually. A good example of where this may show up in your home is when your kid is playing board games that involve rolling dice.
Subitizing allows them to recognize the dots on each die and associate them with numbers without counting each dot. People with dyscalculia struggle with this skill.
Dyscalculia also appears as an inability to recognize patterns or place things in order. A child may struggle with things like:
- Ranking from smallest to largest, shortest to highest, most to least, etc.
- Grouping things together of the same size
These are subtle signs that appear at a young age, primarily preschool or early elementary school age levels. They may be difficult to spot, especially as your child is going through so many developmental phases so quickly.
However, as they get older and their curriculum includes more complex math, these difficulties with numbers may become less subtle.
Because a child with dyscalculia has trouble conceptualizing the value of numbers, they will have difficulty learning basic math functions like:
They won’t be able to understand the meaning of 2 + 4 = 6. This can also lead to difficulty understanding real number properties. For example, children with dyscalculia will struggle to learn some of these basic properties:
|Commutative||1 + 6 = 6 + 1|
|Distributive||3 × (6+2) = 3 × 6 + 3 × 2|
|Additive Inverse||6 + (-6) = 0|
Again, without being able to conceptualize the relative value of numbers, these properties will be difficult to learn for a child with dyscalculia.
We’ve mentioned earlier that young children with dyscalculia have trouble recognizing numbers, specifically associating the numeric symbol with its word. This is subtle early on, but if it goes unnoticed, it will begin to become apparent when word problems start showing up in their math class.
Consider the following problem:
“Stephanie has six trophies and Mick has three. How many more trophies does Stephanie have than Mick?”
A child with dyscalculia will have a hard time translating this word problem into the subtraction problem that it is (6 – 3 = 3).
Without a strong grasp of concepts like greater than or less than, and without the ability to recognize the word six carries a value of 6, it will be difficult to conceptualize and solve this word problem.
As a child with dyscalculia learns math at their own pace, they will struggle with “mental math.” This will of course show up in the classroom when they are challenged to memorize times tables, but the classroom is not the only place dyscalculia will show up.
We know that numbers are very much a part of life, and one early one that your child will likely be exposed to is sports. Keeping score in organized or pick-up matches will be a challenge for children with dyscalculia, as this requires some degree of math “in your head.”
This may be hard to spot. If you suspect your child has dyscalculia, it might be worth asking their coach if they’ve noticed any difficulty scorekeeping. Also, be on the lookout for a few of the following behaviors from your child during sports:
- Confusion or frustration about the score
- Lack of interest or avoidance of the game
Numbers are a part of everyday life, and dyscalculia affects adults too. It will likely show up first in school for your child, but school is not the only place to look for signs.
Money is another everyday number situation your child will encounter as they get older. They may start bringing cash to school for lunch, or want to save up for a new toy. Dyscalculia will make it difficult for them to conceptualize money. They may have difficulty:
- Counting money
- Knowing if they have enough money to purchase something
- Making change
We’ve discussed trouble learning to count or recognizing number patterns. That carries over directly to money. And when they struggle with concepts like greater than or less than, it will be difficult to relate the price of something to the amount of money in their wallet.
It will also be difficult to make change due to the inability to recognize the symbols on notes and relate their value to other notes. For example, a child with dyscalculia will struggle to grasp the concept that there are 2 five-dollar notes in a single ten-dollar note.
Kids will naturally gravitate towards things they enjoy and excel at. And the more they excel, the more they enjoy it. So, as your child grows and their interest develops, you may notice they tend to avoid situations with numbers. Beyond sports this could be:
- Puzzles or games involving math or counting
- Helping with measurements in the kitchen
- Taking on an interest in money
Dyscalculia can take a toll on a child’s self-esteem to the point where they avoid games that would otherwise be fun because they involve numbers or number sense. It’s not uncommon for people to lose interest in math class at school because of their math difficulties, but dyscalculia may lead children to avoid other number intensive, fun situations.
Again, this could be especially telling if they are exhibiting high aptitude in other subjects or skills like reading and writing. That aptitude gap is important, as well as ruling out some other factors before concluding that dyscalculia is the reason your child doesn’t like numbers.
Identifying learning disabilities can be very tricky, and usually requires some professional testing to provide medical advice. Before conducting a test, it’s worth ruling out or addressing some other factors.
It’s pretty typical to check a child’s vision and hearing abilities when they are suspected to have a learning disability. Their difficulty in learning mathematics can simply stem from an inability to see the numbers in front of them or hear the child’s math teacher teaching a lesson.
In terms of dyscalculia, though, a telling sign here again is the aptitude gap. If a child is excelling in reading and writing, but experiencing math difficulties or a poor sense of numbers, then vision or hearing is likely not the issue.
Behavioral conditions like ADHD usually accompany learning disorders like dyscalculia. It’s difficult to pinpoint which one causes the other, that is usually not a clear-cut case. However, cognitive behavioral therapy or talk therapy can address some underlying behavioral traits that can be contributing to difficulty with mathematics.
This will also help with a child’s self-esteem, on which dyscalculia will likely take a toll. It’s just as important to get them the support they need to manage dyscalculia emotionally as it is academically.
Each child has different learning styles. And this is the same with teachers, that they may have different teaching styles. If your child seems to grasp numerical concepts just fine at home but is struggling in the classroom, they may just not be connecting with the method of teaching that’s being provided. And not actually having maths difficulties.
Here is where a tutor or extra help with math homework may be needed before concluding dyscalculia.
Hopefully after reading this article, you have a solid understanding of the common signs of dyscalculia. Obviously, you are here because you want to help your child succeed, whether it be at home with their math homework or at school. If you have picked up on these signs and suspect your child is struggling with dyscalculia, there are a number of things you can do to help.
The next step would be to have your child evaluated for dyscalculia. This may be offered for free at their school and that is definitely a good place to start. Otherwise, you may want to book in an appointment with a Developmental Psychologist to conduct further assessments.
It is important to mention here that if your child has Dyscalculia they may well have other learning disabilities.
Tutors are effective here. Children with dyscalculia may just need the extra time one-on-one and will also benefit from approaching problems differently. It would also be worth asking their teacher what support he/she or the school can offer your child as well. Whether that’s extra time on exams or access to a calculator in class.
Seeing your child frustrated or embarrassed about their math problems & math capabilities can be very difficult as a parent, and often the move is to help them solve this “problem.” It’s why you’re here, right? Remember that dyscalculia can have an impact on your child’s self-esteem.
Helping your child understand this learning disability will enable them to manage it emotionally as well as academically. Living with learning disabilities can be challenging, not only for the individual but also for those supporting them.
With the right help and support in place, a child with dyscalculia will learn mathematics and will turn their math problems around. They may just need to navigate the subject differently than their peers. As a parent, the ability to identify it and put these support structures in place is the best thing you can do.