Maths and Dyscalculia

Compared to many neurodiversity’s, dyscalculia is in its infancy. There is evidence to suggest that around 5% of the UK population are living with dyscalculia, many of whom are unaware. Due to the infancy, dyscalculia is very rarely discussed and diagnostic testing is difficult to come by. This blog will break down dyscalculia in an attempt to start the conversation.

What is Dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a biological, neurodiversity, it has no correlation to a person’s intelligence and effects an individual’s ability to process numbers, understand and recognise mathematical symbols, cope with abstract mathematical concepts, and develop mathematical operation skills. It is important to note that finding maths tricky is not the same as having dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is far more extreme.

How does Dyscalculia Affect the Brain?

Many neurodiversity’s affect the brain in similar ways, I am sure if you have read my ASD and ADHD blogs you noticed that certain areas of the brain are affected. Dyscalculia is no different in that respect.

Focus, short term memory, working memory, processing speed, and organisational skills are all affected. The brain is having to work harder when dyscalculia is present, this creates almost a fog for the child. They become tired and as a result their attention span will decrease, and the mind will wander. This is the brain trying to protect itself from the challenge it is facing. As we have seen in children with ASD and ADHD, the short term memory is crucial to new learning and developing understanding. In the case of dyscalculia, the short term memory struggles to recall information needed to approach the maths question. This can be in the form of recalling times tables or even as limiting as recalling what the numbers and symbols mean in the question. Processing speed goes hand in hand with working memory, children with dyscalculia take longer to determine what the question says, what it is asking them to do and then how to approach the question. For non-neurodiverse children, this is almost an instant reaction. Finally, organisation, this affects the child’s ability to even start the question, what is needed? Which order do steps come in? How do I write this on my page? Why is the question set out in that manner? These are all questions that they are having to cope with, that non-neurodiverse children answer, almost instinctively. Not all children with dyscalculia will react or respond in the same way, or struggle with all the areas highlighted here. Like all neurodiversity’s, it is a very individual experience.

If you suspect dyscalculia, discuss this with your education setting and GP the earlier a diagnosis is made, the earlier steps can be put in place to help your child develop their coping strategies.

What should I look out for in Pre-Schoolers?

  • Difficulty in associating a number with a set of objects, this means not linking the number 5 to a group of 5 toys, or chairs, or animals that they can see.
  • Difficulty learning to count, this doesn’t mean getting the odd number in the wrong place, but consistently finding it difficult to remember and recognise numbers.
  • Difficulty in seeing patterns, for example they may not be able to say who is the tallest, who is the shortest. Arranging their toys in order of size would be challenging.

What should I look out for in primary aged children?

The list is far more extensive here as the age range is wider, along with the number of mathematical processes that the child will meet.

  • Difficulty recalling number bonds to 5, 10 and 20, these additions are the first step to mental maths strategies.
  • Counting on fingers for subtraction and addition frequently, while being unable to use a mental maths strategy when asked. Many children count on fingers throughout school and into adult life as a habit, this is different to being unable to calculate in another way.
  • Difficulty in understanding maths language, this is usually easiest to see during word problems. Initial confusion or lack of understanding is different to consistently seeming to forget the meaning of terms such as difference between, more than, multiple of etc.
  • Confusing mathematical signs such as + – x ÷
  • Difficulty recognising that addition and multiplication are commutative, meaning that 2 +8 and 8+2 is the same question, or 9×3 and 3×9 will have the same answer
  • Will potentially avoid keeping scores in games or sports, playing board games or card which have mathematical elements to them.
  • Managing money is difficult, not knowing if they have enough money to buy something, or even how to save money for something currently too expensive. This is not the same as understanding the costing or saving opportunity and spending the money anyway.

What should I look for in Secondary Aged Children?

  • Difficulty reading and understanding graphs and charts.
  • Difficulties with formulae and applying numbers to them.
  • Trouble with multistep problems, unable to identify steps or organise a plan to answer them.
  • Difficulty building on previously taught methods, maths is revisited in cycles and learning is built upon, adapting what has previously been taught can be particularly challenging, as it feels as though the maths is changing.
  • Distance and direction are complicated, they are unable to estimate distance and struggle to give or follow directions.
  • Estimating is abstract and causes confusion.
  • Increased difficulty with financial maths.

These lists are in no way exhaustive, there are numerous ways in which dyscalculia can and will manifest itself in children. What is important is that we start the conversation, make dyscalculia as understood as dyslexia and help those that are living with it. Finally, I have some low stakes maths ideas that you can do at home or out and about (within Covid-19 restrictions) to help accessing maths. These activities will benefit all children, but, the low stakes make them better for children with dyscalculia.

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on

What can I do?

The Supermarket

The supermarket is a great place to find maths, you can ask your children to help you collect the items on your list and read the price of them. Children can help you count the number of an item that you might need. Depending on where they are in their learning journey, they can even tell you which item is cheaper, or more expensive. Just talking to your child using maths language will help them to learn it.

In the car

Trips in the car may not be as frequent at the moment, but they provide lots of opportunities to find maths. You can count numbers of certain types of vehicles, record the time when you started and ended the journey, even spot numbers on road signs. All of these will take the pressure off the number work as there is no written calculation, just be sure to regularly remind them what they are looking for.

Out for a walk

Out and about is another easy place to find numbers, counting animal that you might see, looking for certain numbers, even taking a stick and drawing numbers in the mud if you are feeling bold. Poohsticks is another way of developing maths language, talk about the size of the sticks and even which was faster and slower. Walks also allow you to talk about what you can see, this brings in directions as you guide your child to what to look at. You can also work on reading distances through apps on your phone, telling you how far you have walked.

In the kitchen

Maths through cooking is one of my favourite things. You have reading the recipe, measuring the ingredients, following the cooking instructions, setting the temperature, measuring the time for cooking and cooling, then you can add dividing and fractions through sharing your creations. All that maths and a tasty treat at the end…what more could you want?

For more ideas, inspiration, and opportunities to talk maths, why not join our Facebook Group?

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