It is quite normal for a child to experience occasional difficulties in learning new concepts. A child can require additional support and efforts with more complex concepts across subject areas. May it be language, science, arts, or mathematics.
But there are certain specific learning disabilities that can hamper achievement of a child in a specific area of learning. For example dyslexia, a reading disability, makes learning to read challenging for a child.
There is another lesser known but common type of specific learning disability, called “dyscalculia.” It is also called “math learning disability,” “math dyslexia,” or “number dyslexia.”
A child with dyscalculia faces problems in understanding numerical and mathematical concepts. These challenges can range from simple number concepts to complicated mathematical operations.
It is important to understand is that its not a temporary condition. Rather, the difficulty with numbers is consistent, and in many cases can persist for years or a lifetime.
I have struggled with numbers all my life. I can tell you how frustrating it feels when no one understands what you are going through. There were times when my teachers and parents thought that I was unable to perform better in mathematics because:
- I was not putting in enough efforts
- or I simply didn’t like math.
This perception was backed by the fact that I was doing very well in other subject areas. It was hard for them to understand how a child who happened to be a responsible student could be so careless in something as important as mathematics.
In my case, I had difficulties with mental math and complicated mathematical operations. But my logical thinking, basic math, and visual imagery was strong. So gradually, I developed my own coping strategies to make up for the weaker or missing abilities.
I can tell you from my own experience that dyscalculia is for real. It can be very frustrating for the child. The level and extent of challenges might be different for each child. But as a mother you can help him in coping with these challenges by using appropriate strategies.
Symptoms of dyscalculia
A child with dyscalculia can have:
- difficulty in understanding measurement, size, and time related concepts,
- difficulty in reading time from an analog watch,
- difficulty in understanding the quantity and its numerical representation, e.g., 5 represents five objects,
- difficulty in grasping sequence related concepts, e.g., smaller than, larger than, taller, thinner,
- difficulty in handling money,
- challenges in learning basic mathematical operations, e.g., addition, subtraction, multiplication, division etc.,
- inconsistent performance in addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc.,
- problems in performing mental math, e.g., subtracting or adding numbers without using paper and pencil,
- difficulty in reading graphs, maps, and construction drawings, where scales are used to represent distance or size.
How common is dyscalculia?
According to research, the prevalence of dyscalculia ranges from 3-6% in the general population. A few studies indicate that the prevalence is almost the same in boys and girls. Researchers agree that children facing difficulties with numerical skills form a heterogenous group.
According to different studies, 25% to 42% children having mathematics learning disability also have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Hyperactivity and attention deficit make learning mathematical skills more difficult. In such cases, ADHD related issues need to be addressed before implementing an instructional plan for dyscalculia.
In many cases children with dyscalculia also have dyslexia or a reading disability. So difficulty in reading numbers and mathematical symbols makes development of arithmetic and numerical concepts even more difficult.
It is important to understand that numerical or arithmetic related difficulties arising out of sensory impairments or Autism Spectrum Disorder cannot be diagnosed as dyscalculia.
Similarly, poorly developed arithmetical concepts out of weak or insufficient instruction can be labeled as inappropriate instruction, but not dyscalculia.
Effective strategies to overcome dyscalculia
If appropriate strategies are used, the child can gradually overcome these problems, or can learn to cope with challenges arising out of dyscalculia.
1. Develop pre-number concepts
We cannot expect a child to learn counting without following a sequence of pre-requisite skills. You might have noticed that in early years, math books contain certain matching and sorting activities. Those activities are designed around pre-number skills.
If you want to facilitate number acquisition of your child, design your activities in accordance with following a logical sequence of concept development.
- Matching: matching similar objects based on a specific attribute, e.g., pencil with pencil and notebook with notebook,
- Sorting: sorting a larger group of objects into subgroups e.g., combining color pencils in one group and led pencils in other,
- Comparing: comparing objects based on a specific feature, e.g., shorter or longer pencil,
- Ordering: arranging objects in a specific order, e.g., arranging pencils in descending order (longer to shorter).
If you look closely, these pre-number concepts provide the basis for understanding how:
- a numeral represents a specific quantity,
- a number is greater or smaller than another, and
- numbers can be arranged in a forward or backward manner.
So when you plan any activity for your child, make sure you progress in a structured way. Letting your child gradually master one step at a time will minimize the chances of failed attempts and resultant anxiety.
2. Get familiar with the language of math
It’s important to get children familiar with numbers and counting early in life. A few fun activities that you can use are:
- counting toys in a basket,
- singing number poems with actions,
- counting spoons or cups in the kitchen,
- “Bring me” activities, e.g., “Bring me 2 apples,” “Bring me 3 spoons from the kitchen,” “Bring 1 cup for your brother,” etc.
Introducing numerical concepts early in life helps in learning arithmetic in future.
3. Play mathematical games
You can help your child in learning number and arithmetic concepts through games. Here are few examples how routine chores can be turned into fully loaded math learning games:
- I am a strong believer that the kitchen is full of learning resources. When you are making sandwiches for your kids, you can cut them in half to teach the concept of full and half. For older children, their favorite pizza can be an amazing teaching aid to learn fractions. Similarly, if your kids are having a little chef day, use recipes to explain the measurement concepts likes weights and cups.
- I just discussed in the pre-number activities that sorting and comparing are very important for developing numerical concepts. Just imagine setting a table with your child. Putting plates, spoons, knives, etc. of different sizes in each set covers almost all pre-number skills. Pretty amazing right?
- Another essential mathematical ability is “subitizing” or the ability to tell the number of objects in front of eyes without counting. For example, you can tell the number of dots on dice without counting them. To stimulate this ability, you can play compare the baskets or compare the piles game. You can ask the child to guess which basket has more apples. Or in the supermarket, which pile has more boxes, etc.
- If you go out shopping, reading price tags can be an interesting activity.
- Many counting games can be played if you are out on the road. For example, the number of people wearing a blue shirt, the number of red cars on the road, vehicles having number 4 on their number plate, etc.
- If you notice, we memorize phone numbers by using a technique called “chunking.” We group numbers into small chunks and remember them. You can play remember a number game with your child. It will help him in practicing chunking and getting comfortable with numbers.
- Playing board games like Ludo can be very effective in practicing mathematical skills.
4. Mental math
Practicing mental math is one activity that I have personally used to strengthen my mind muscles. You can start with simple questions and gradually make it complex:
- You and your brother have 1 chocolate each, how many in total?
- If a pizza has 6 slices, how many will each of us 3 get?
- You have $50. If you buy shoes worth $25, how much money will you have left?
I remember we used to play a game as children, in which no matter what number we imagined, after doing a series of mathematical calculations, we were used to end up getting the same answer. It was a fun way of practicing mental math.
5. Use manipulatives
Do remember that if your child is facing difficulty in learning math, you need to facilitate the process by using manipulatives, or hands-on objects that teach math concepts.
- For younger children, you can use real life objects to teach counting. Cut outs of numbers can be used to associate a numeral with its value.
- Similarly, blocks of different colors can be used to explain the concept of addition or subtraction.
- Using Legos, dominoes, dice, or an abacus can be very effective in physical representation of numerals and arithmetical processes.
- In later stages, you can allow your child to use their fingers or draw lines on paper to do addition or subtraction.
With practice, your child will be able to gradually reduce his or her dependence on manipulatives.
6. Learn about dyscalculia
Dyscalculia is almost as common as dyslexia. But usually people do not know much about it. If you suspect that your child is facing problems in learning math related concepts, read about the condition and increase your knowledge. This way you will be more equipped to support your child.
7. Educate your child about the condition
If your child has been tested and diagnosed by a professional, it is his right that you give him age appropriate information about his condition.
If you provide him with age appropriate factual information in a friendly and reassuring way, he will be less likely to fall victim to anxiety and frustration.
8. Encourage technological support
No doubt mathematics is important in life, and you should strive hard to develop basic competencies in your child. Try to help him in using technological support like calculators where needed to supplement his set of abilities.
But do not let his challenges with numbers define him. Help him in keeping a positive mindset and ensure that he enjoys a happy and healthy life.
I myself never enjoyed good relations with numbers, but believe me, it never stopped me from studying, establishing a career, and enjoying my life.
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