When things don’t add up

Does your child have severe maths difficulties? Educational psychologist Karen Archer explains what Dyscalculia is and how to deal with it.

Maths is an important life skill and those with poor maths skills can be at more of a disadvantage than those with poor literacy skills when it comes to educational prospects, earning potential and employment opportunities. (Bynner & Parsons, 1997).

Dyscalculia is a term referring to a wide range of difficulties with maths, including weaknesses in understanding the meaning of numbers, and difficulty applying mathematical principles to solve problems. It is caused by the developmental differences in the structures and patterns of activations in the brain (Butterworth, 2019).

Maths difficulties are best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, with Dyscalculia at one end of the spectrum – distinguishable from other maths issues due to the severity of difficulties with number sense, including subitising, symbolic and non-symbolic magnitude comparison, and ordering. Dyscalculia can occur in isolation, but often co-occurs with other specific learning difficulties. Estimates vary, but most experts believe that between three to six percent of the population have symptoms of Dyscalculia and therefore, although your child may be struggling with maths, it is unlikely that he or she is truly Dyscalculic.

However, understanding the symptoms associated with Dyscalculia can be helpful to the parent of a child experiencing severe maths difficulties, as the foundations of maths remediation will help every child build solid foundational numeracy skills.

Signs of Dyscalculia may include:

  • A poor sense of number and estimation
  • Despite many hours of practice / rote learning, difficulty in remembering ‘basic’ facts
  • Difficulty counting backwards
  • No strategies to compensate for lack of recall, other than to use counting
  • Difficulty grasping place value and the role of zero
  • Difficulty remembering maths procedures, especially as they become more complex e.g. ‘long’ division. Addition is often the default operation. Other operations are usually very poorly executed (or avoided altogether)
  • No sense of whether their answers obtained are correct or nearly correct
  • A slower pace performing calculations
  • Avoidance of tasks that are perceived as difficult
  • Weak mental arithmetic skills
  • High levels of maths anxiety

How to help your child with Dyscalculia?

  1. Learn all you can about Dyscalculia and possible co-morbidities: the more informed you are, the more you can help your child to get the support needed. Research shows that children with any learning difficulty can be more susceptible to anxiety and depression.
  2. Allow for transparency across all disciplines: the more specialists involved in supporting you and your child, and the more transparency about your child’s difficulties, the better.
  3. Talk to your child – involve them appropriately in the discussions with specialists. This will empower your child to feel as important as the process of remediation itself and feel at ease to ask for the assistance they need.
  4. Help your child to adopt a growth mindset. Allow them to recognise that when they struggle with concepts, their brains are firing and making new neural pathways in order to ‘grow their brains’. When I drop off my children at school, my parting words are: “Have fun and make lots of mistakes”. They always laugh at me and are not ashamed to tell me of mistakes they make at school – in fact they are quite proud of them!
  5. Keep it concrete and multisensory. Allow your child to use any concrete apparatus available to them when working out a problem – be it their fingers, lego, counters, playdough, base tens, pasta, pizza for fractions, or baking for measurements and capacity.
  6. Play – Find their passion and incorporate maths, showing them how interconnected it is to all we do – whether through a game at home as a family, counting in patterns on the way to school, or while they are jumping on the trampoline. Estimate distances and measure them out,  work through conversions in baking. Make it light-hearted and use as much mathematical language as possible in all that you do. Your enthusiasm for the subject will create a positive reference for your child.
  7. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat. Children with Dyscalculia and severe maths difficulties need constant repetition. Use a reward system for your child to keep them motivated as repetition can become boring.
  8. Find support for yourself. Raising a child with a learning difficulty can be challenging and therefore the more supported you feel, the better you will be able to cope. 

At Bellavista SHARE we have trained professionals who can assist you in learning more about Dyscalculia and guide you as to the best  intervention available to your child. Visit for more information.

* Photo: Keira Burton via Pexels 

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