The term dyscalculia — from the Greek ‘dys’ and Latin ‘calculia’ — means to count badly and is used to describe people who have severe difficulties with numbers.
Compared to other learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia has received little attention, and the familiarity of the general public with it as a problem is relatively low. Even so, early intervention and treatment are essential to minimize the impact this learning disability can have on a child. We investigate five strategies that should be part of any dyscalculia treatment plan.
Table of contents:
- What is dyscalculia?
- Why early intervention for dyscalculia matters
- Five strategies for dyscalculia treatment
- How Edublox treatment for dyscalculia works
- Key takeaways
What is dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia is a learning disability in math. It is characterized by impairments in learning basic arithmetic facts, processing numerical quantities, and performing accurate and fluent calculations. These difficulties are below what is expected for the individual’s chronological age, and are not caused by poor education, or by intellectual deficits.
At the behavioral level, children with dyscalculia have difficulties retrieving arithmetic facts from memory, and they commonly rely on immature strategies such as finger counting while their age-matched peers are easily retrieving arithmetic facts from memory.
Why early intervention for dyscalculia matters
Dyscalculia may have some serious implications for children if no intervention and treatment is provided. Primarily, dyscalculia may impinge on the emotional well-being of students. In a focus group carried out by Bevan and Butterworth (2007) with nine children with dyscalculia, many negative feelings were expressed related to the children’s constant failure in mathematics. The children reported that they felt left out, blamed themselves for not knowing how to solve a task, cried, as well as felt “horrible” and “stupid.”
In the long term, living with dyscalculia can be difficult. Difficulties vary from simply remembering important telephone numbers and dates, to paying the right amount to the cashier when going shopping and checking the change. Other tasks presenting difficulties could be cooking, planning appointments, and being able to use the time available in a day appropriately. Adults who have dyscalculia often feel embarrassed when they are faced with everyday tasks which they cannot handle.
Math disabilities may negatively impact job opportunities and prospects in the workplace — even more than literacy difficulties (Bynner & Parsons, 1997). Students with poor numeracy skills tend to leave full-time education at their first chance. They are more likely to be unemployed, depressed, ill, and arrested. All this illustrates that dyscalculia should be treated at a young age before it has irreversible effects. Even a small delay in math can, in a few short years, translate into a significant gap between what a child is expected to do and know in math and what he or she can do. This phenomenon is referred to as the “Matthew Effect,” a term coined by Robert K. Meron in 1968 and referring to Matthew 25:29 that says the rich will get richer, and the poor will get poorer.
Five strategies for dyscalculia treatment
Like other learning disabilities, dyscalculia cannot be treated with medication. Rather, specialized learning strategies are required to treat the disorder. Below are the five most important strategies that need to be applied in any dyscalculia treatment plan:
1. Adhere to fundamental learning principles
It should also be noted that learning is a stratified process. Certain skills have to be mastered first, before it becomes possible to master subsequent skills.
To be a football player, a person first has to master the foundational skills, e.g. passing, kicking, and tackling. In the same way, in order to do math, a child first has to learn the foundational skills of math, like visual perception and visual memory. The child who confuses the signs +, -, ÷ and ×, may have a problem with visual discrimination of forms and/or visual discrimination of position in space. A child who has a poor sense of direction (i.e., north, south, east, and west), may have a problem with visual discrimination of position in space, etc.
The second step would be to master mathematical skills, which must be done in sequentially. One has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. Suppose one tried to teach a child, who had not yet learned to count, to add and subtract. This would be quite impossible and no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child these skills. The child must learn to count first, before it becomes possible for him to learn to add and subtract.
The third step would be to ensure that a learner catches up on the knowledge aspect of math.
2. Minimize anxiety
It is crucial to minimize levels of anxiety as much as possible, as anxiety may be a disability in its own right. Anxiety may fill up the working memory space of the brain without allowing the complete and effective processing of numerical tasks (Ashcraft et al., 1998).
Anxiety of any type causes the body to release the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream. Cortisol’s main function is to refocus the brain on the source of the anxiety and determine what action to take to relieve the stress. Heart rate increases and other physical indicators of worry appear. Meanwhile, the frontal lobe is no longer interested in learning or processing mathematical operations because it has to deal with what may be a threat to the individual’s safety. As a result, the student cannot focus on the learning task at hand and has to cope with the frustration of inattention. Furthermore, the anxious feelings disrupt working memory’s ability to manipulate and retain numbers and numerical expressions (Sousa, 2015).
One simple way to minimize anxiety is to let the student sit up straight. As part of a study by researchers at San Francisco State University, 125 college students were tested to see how well they could perform simple math — subtracting 7 from 843 sequentially for 15 seconds — while either slumped over or sitting up straight with shoulders back and relaxed. Fifty-six percent of the students reported finding it easier to perform the math in the upright position.
For people who are anxious about math, posture makes a giant difference. The slumped-over position shuts them down and their brains do not work as well. They cannot think as clearly (Peper et al., 2018).
3. Teach in a multisensory way
Information is taken into the brain through three main channels: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Many students with a learning disability have a weakness in one or more of these channels. Teaching in a multisensory way, using all three channels simultaneously, will help them as their weaker channels are supported by their stronger ones (Hornigold, 2015).
4. Make the most of mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes; they are vital to developing understanding. Unfortunately, constantly making mistakes in math can lead some children to give up. However, research by Jo Boaler and Carol Dweck at Stanford University has shown that synapses grow in the brain when mistakes are made and that there is no growth when the answers are correct. Even if a mistake is not rectified, there will be growth. It is the struggle to get the right answers that fosters growth.
One of the most powerful moves a teacher or parent can make is in changing the messages they give about mistakes and wrong answers in mathematics. When we teach students that mistakes are positive, it has an incredibly liberating effect on them (Boaler, 2016).
5. Repetition is not the enemy
In the 1920s and 1930s, repetition and rote learning became to define bad teaching. Teachers were told that drill-and-practice dulls students’ creativity (Heward, 2003) and that rote learning in math classes is anti-right brain and therefore potentially criminal, as it robs all students of the opportunity to develop their human potential (Elliott, 1980). The phrase “drill and kill” is still used in educational circles, meaning that by drilling the student, you will kill their motivation to learn (Heffernan, 2010).
When properly conducted, however, drill-and-practice is a consistently effective teaching method and should not be slighted as “low level,” and appears to be just as essential to complex and creative intellectual performance as they are to the performance of a virtuoso violinist (Brophy, 1986). A meta-analysis of 85 academic intervention studies with students with learning disabilities, carried out by Swanson and Sachse-Lee (2000), found that regardless of the practical or theoretical orientation of the study, the largest effect sizes were obtained by interventions that included systematic drill, repetition, practice, and review.
How Edublox treatment for dyscalculia works
Edublox offers online treatment to students with mild to severe dyscalculia. Our dyscalculia program aims at:
(1.) developing the underlying shortcomings that interfere with math performance, such as poor visuospatial memory, working memory, and logical thinking,
(2.) teaching math skills in a sequential fashion, which may include counting and skip-counting, adding and subtracting, multiplication and division, applying place value, fractions, using money, reading time, etc., as well as
(3.) teaching math knowledge.
We also aim at minimizing anxiety, teach math in a multisensory way, make the most of mistakes, and repetition is not our enemy.
Dyscalculia case studies
In this video, Sandy tells about her daughter Amy, who was diagnosed with dyscalculia and dyslexia. Sandy shares how Edublox has helped to fill in the holes that Amy was missing: working memory, number sense, understanding price tags, and more.
Below is an example of a child’s progress after receiving treatment from Edublox. She was diagnosed with dyscalculia as well as dyslexia and ADHD. Click here to follow her amazing journey to learning success.
Below is another child’s progress after receiving math help from Edublox. She was diagnosed with dyslexia and acalculia. Click here to follow her journey to learning success.
Below is the report of a third child whose math marks improved from 43% in the first term to 70% in the third term. Many of his other subject improved as well, as a result of the cognitive training he received:
Edublox offers live online tutoring to students with dyscalculia. Our students are in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s math learning needs.
There is no general agreement on the precise meaning of the term dyscalculia. Reports of dyscalculia’s prevalence, therefore, vary depending upon the definition and situation. Research suggests that it has the same prevalence as dyslexia (about 6–8% of children) although it is far less widely recognized by parents and educators.
The most generally agreed-upon feature of children with dyscalculia is difficulty in learning and remembering arithmetic facts. The second feature of children with dyscalculia is difficulty in executing calculation procedures, with immature problem-solving strategies, long solution times, and high error rates. There are many other characteristics, symptoms and signs.
The term developmental dyscalculia is used to distinguish the problem in children and youth from similar problems experienced by adults after severe head injuries or as a result of a stroke. This type of dyscalculia is known as acquired dyscalculia. There are other types and several subtypes.
Most problems can only be solved if one knows what causes that particular problem. A viable point of departure would thus be to ask: what causes dyscalculia? We investigate genetic influences, cognitive deficits, mathematical skills, and brain differences..
Authored by Susan du Plessis (B.A. Hons Psychology; B.D.), an educational specialist with 30+ years’ experience in the field of learning disabilities.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Zelda Strydom (MBChB).
References and sources:
Ashcraft, M. H., Kirk, E. P., & Hopko, D. (1998). On the cognitive consequences of mathematics anxiety. In C. Donlan (Ed.), The development of mathematical skills. Hove: Psychology Press.
Bevan, A., & Butterworth, B. (2007). The responses to maths disabilities in the classroom. Retrieved on April 17, 2020 from www.mathematicalbrain.com/pdf/2002BEVANBB.PDF.
Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical mindsets. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Brophy, J. (1986). Teacher influences on student achievement. American Psychologist, 41, 1069–1077.
Butterworth, B., & Yeo, D. (2004). Dyscalculia guidance: Helping pupils with specific learning difficulties in maths. London: Fulton Publishers.
Bynner, J., & Parsons, S. (1997). Does numeracy matter? London: Basic Skills Agency.
Elliott, P. C. (1980). Going “back to basics” in mathematics won’t prove who’s “right”, but who’s “left” (brain duality and mathematics learning). International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 11(2), 213-219.
Heffernan, V. (2010, September 16). Drill, baby, drill. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved February 10, 2020 from https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/magazine/19fob-medium-heffernan-t.html
Heward, W. L. (2003). Ten faulty notions about teaching and learning that hinder the effectiveness of special education. Journal of Special Education, 36(4), 186-205.
Hornigold, J. (2015). Dyscalculia pocketbook. Alresford, Hampshire: Teachers’ Pocketbooks.
Peper, E., Harvey, R., Mason, L., & Lin, I-M. (2018). Do better in math: How your body posture may change stereotype threat response. NeuroRegulation, 5(2).
Sousa, D. A. (2015). How the brain learns mathematics, 2nd ed. California: Corwin Press.
Swanson, H. L., & Sachse-Lee, C. (2000). A meta-analysis of single-subject design intervention research for students with LD. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 38(2), 114-136.