Most teachers are familiar with the more common learning disabilities. One of those, dyslexia, has gotten a lot of needed attention in recent years. But just as many, if not more, young people have difficulties with basic math - and there's a specific learning disability for that called dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is informally called "math dyslexia" or "number dyslexia" by many people. It is one of the specific learning disabilities covered under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). This blog post will explain some of the most common signs of dyscalculia that you might see in a student.
I'll also include a dyscalculia checklist that you can download and print out to refer to.
Signs of dyscalculia in young children:
difficulty recognizing numbers
late learning to count
difficulty recognizing patterns
difficulty with sequencing
struggles to connect numbers to quantities (i.e. 9 represents nine objects)
loses track when counting objects
needs to use manipulatives or visual aids to count beyond what is normally expected with younger children (fingers, touch each object when counting, etc)
Mathematics difficulties seen in school-age students with dyscalculia:
extreme difficulty learning how to complete basic math procedures like addition, subtraction, and multiplication
persistent finger-counting and using fingers to calculate
poor number sense and inability to make reasonable estimates
unable to do mental math tasks
difficulty with skip counting and counting backwards
struggles to interpret word problems and relate them to math calculations
has a hard time understanding place value
poor memory and recall of numerical information such as phone numbers
difficulty learning to count money and make change
difficulty learning to tell time
difficulty with time management and estimating how long it will take to complete a task
difficulty processing visual-spatial information such as graphs, charts, and maps
avoidance of even short math assignments and tests
experiences math anxiety when presented with new math concepts and tasks
How is Dyscalculia Diagnosed?
A child's teacher is often the first to notice that a child struggles with math. But dyscalculia is most accurately diagnosed by an educational psychologist. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the American Psychiatric Association) defines dyscalculia as a specific learning disorder evidenced by problems with:
Memorization of basic math facts
Accurate and fluent calculation
Accurate math reasoning
The difficulties must have persisted for at least 6 months and fail to improve despite the implementation of appropriate interventions.
That means if a student is struggling with basic math skills and you suspect that he or she may have dyscalculia, you will need to go through the same steps you would for dyslexia or any other learning difficulty.
First, you will need to implement specific math interventions to try to remedy the problem. Keep accurate data that shows what interventions you put in place, how often they were used, and how the student responded.
If there is little to no improvement after a period of time (usually 5 to 6 weeks), the next step is to start the referral process to your school psychologist. He or she may provide you with checklist screeners, different interventions to try, or may schedule the child for diagnostic assessments.
For a free printable version of the checklists above, click the image below:
Although math struggles are often a lifelong problem, a diagnosis of dyscalculia is the first step toward getting a student the right help. Special education services, extra help with a private tutor, and simple accommodations like providing extra time and visual supports are all things that can give the student the support he or she needs to be successful math students.