Are you familiar with the diagnosis dyscalculia? Many people have never heard of it due to the small percentage of individuals who are diagnosed each year. However, dyscalculia can be a very challenging learning disability, which is why we’re going to dive into all the details in this article!
According to the Dyslexia - SPELD Foundation, dyscalculia is “a specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics and is associated with significant difficulty understanding numbers and working with mathematical concepts.” These challenges can include:
This of course can cause major challenges with children who are just learning math skills as well as older children who are taking higher level math classes. Additionally, math and numbers are involved in many parts of daily life (such as counting money and telling time) which means that a child struggling with dyscalculia will have difficulties in many areas.
First, let’s talk about what a learning disability (or disorder) is, then we’ll dive into the specific skills required for mathematics. We’ll also talk about strategies that can help if your child struggles with or is showing signs of dyscalculia.
First, what is a learning disability? According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, learning disabilities are “a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning.”
A learning disability is not something that can be “cured.” Instead, individuals with learning disabilities learn strategies to get through their day successfully. They are typically genetic or neurobiological - meaning they originate in the brain. Anyone can have a learning disability - including individuals with average or above-average intelligence. Therefore, an individual with a learning disability can achieve great achievements in life!
Dyscalculia is a learning disability due to the neurobiological origin - meaning that it originates in the brain and is not typically due to trauma, illness, or any other diagnosis (however it has been seen in adults as a result of a head injury). Specifically, dyscalculia is a learning disability related to numbers and math. Dyscalculia is often seen in children (and adults) who also have dyslexia.
Math skills are not just remembering numbers and equations. There are many different skill sets that are involved in mathematics including visual perceptual skills, working memory, sequencing abilities and sequential memory, planning and organization, laterality (ability to identify left vs. right), generalization abilities, critical thinking, attention and focus.
There are seven areas of visual perception and each one is required for success with mathematics and other tasks that require the use of numbers, such as money management and telling time. For a deep dive on the visual system, check out this blog.
A child with dyscalculia will likely struggle with some or all areas of visual perceptual skills. The child’s brain is not accurately processing the visual information being seen, specifically with numbers in this case. One study from 2018 found that, “visual perception deficits are a common cognitive deficit underlying both developmental dyslexia and dyscalculia.”
Executive functioning skills are a set of skills that help individuals plan, manage, and organize their life. This includes working memory, sequencing abilities and sequential memory, planning and organization, and attention and focus (among others).
Working memory allows you to hold information temporarily and use it when needed. It also allows you to store information for later use, even long-term use. Things like remembering a phone number, recalling an address or location you’re driving to, understanding money, and knowing that 2+2=4 are all examples of working memory.
A child with dyscalculia may struggle with working memory, as they may not visually process the numbers on a page during a math lesson, therefore making it difficult to recall accurately. Additionally, they may struggle with understanding and processing math facts (such as 2+2=4) therefore causing difficulties with recalling it for later use.
Sequencing is the ability to put things in a specific order. This includes organizing what you’re doing every day (think of your morning routine - it’s likely sequenced in a specific order) as well as various tasks like reading and writing. Sequential memory specifically is the ability to recall things in a specific order, such as numbers and counting.
A child with dyscalculia may struggle with sequencing numbers, sequencing number patterns, and recalling specific number sequences.
This is the ability to think ahead in order to plan for the future and to organize what you’re doing so that it all flows and makes sense. These two skills are very important for mathematics - you must organize your numbers, you must plan what to write and where to write it. If your math is not organized, you will likely not come up with the correct answer. Additionally, planning and organization is used for telling time, counting money, etc.
A child with dyscalculia may struggle with overall abilities to plan and organize math facts on the paper (and in their head!), money management, and time management.
This is the ability to attend to a specific task for a specific amount of time and not become distracted by external or internal distractions. This is particularly important when focusing on learning new math skills as well as overall ability to complete any task requiring sustained attention while in a busy environment.
A child with dyscalculia may struggle significantly with attention and focus to math related tasks due to challenges in all of the other skill areas - when one specific area of a task is difficult, it makes attention and focus that much more difficult.
Laterality refers to the ability to identify left versus right. Along with laterality is directionality - the ability to identify left and right, top and bottom, over and under, etc. This is important for children when they are learning to read and write - one hand becomes dominant for handwriting tasks and the child learns to read from the left side of the page and move to the right side of the page, as well as beginning at the top. This is especially important for learning math skills and telling time.
Additionally, laterality and directionality skills are directly related to visual perceptual skills. Understanding how items are organized and visually organizing and identifying objects is particularly important for mathematics. It also corresponds with accurately writing numbers on a piece of paper - facing the number 3 to the left, not to the right.
A child with dyscalculia may struggle with orienting numbers accurately, moving from left to right and top to bottom (during reading and writing of math facts), and successfully reading a clock.
Generalization is the ability to apply an idea as a general truth in most cases. This ties directly in with critical thinking, the ability to analyze a situation based on facts. These are two very important concepts within mathematics. A child with dyscalculia will likely already be struggling with visual perceptual skills, executive functioning skills, attention and focus, and laterality skills thus causing even more difficulty with generalization and critical thinking for higher level math skills to develop.
Let’s briefly list out some of the main signs of dyscalculia (National Center for Learning Disabilities).
Additionally, a child with dyscalculia may show signs of poor self-confidence or depression, due to the challenges they face. They often compare their skills to their peers - many children with dyscalculia understand that they are “different” and may feel like they are not “as good” as their peers.
Because dyscalculia is a neurological learning disability, blood tests or scans cannot diagnose it. Instead, an evaluation (or test) can identify the signs and symptoms for a diagnosis. Information is typically gathered from the caregivers and teachers, if the child is in school. Then, specific tests are given to the child to identify the challenges.
A licensed psychologist trained in learning disorders can diagnose dyscalculia. This could be your child's school psychologist. The specialist will review academic records and performance tests and may administer diagnostic tests to assess for mathematical skills.
Chat with your pediatrician if you suspect that your child is showing signs of dyscalculia.
If you suspect that your child may be showing signs of dyscalculia, or if your child has a diagnosis of dyscalculia, there are some activities that you can complete with them to help! If your child does have a diagnosis of dyscalculia, they will likely have a specific program and interventions.
The activities provided here are not meant to treat, diagnose, or “fix” anyone. They are simply sensory-based activities that target the skills areas related to dyscalculia.
Primitive reflexes have an impact on learning. We are all born with primitive reflexes and these reflexes should naturally integrate as we grow - this means they develop into higher level movement patterns, or “go away.” If a child does not naturally integrate their primitive reflexes (this can happen for a variety of reasons and the reason is oftentimes unknown), challenges in gross motor development, fine motor development, and cognitive development can occur.
You can read more about primitive reflexes here.
When we talk about dyscalculia, there are a couple of primitive reflexes that have been shown to have an impact:
A series of research studies and the outcomes can be found here.
If you’ve never heard of primitive reflexes and their impact on learning, that’s ok! Many people haven’t! But now that you know, let’s talk about what you can do!
First, let’s talk about some of the other signs that these 3 primitive reflexes may still be present, or retained, along with the signs of dyscalculia.
If you suspect that your child might have a retained primitive reflex, the first step is getting an evaluation for occupational therapy or another professional who is trained in primitive reflex integration - physical therapy, cranio-sacral therapy, or chiropractic care are some other options to look into. The goal: to integrate any retained primitive reflexes through a series of specific exercises that create new neural pathways in the brain. Additionally, you can learn more about primitive reflex integration with our digital course.
There are a variety of activities and games that you can play with your child in order to help develop and improve their visual perceptual skills.
If you suspect that your child has severe visual perceptual deficits, you can talk with your pediatrician about getting screened for vision therapy. Additionally, learn more about Irlen Syndrome, a perceptual processing disorder, here.
Incorporating games and activities that address executive functioning skills is an important piece. One study found that executive function intervention programs had positive results in several areas of arithmetic knowledge in dyscalculia. If you’re interested in this type of intervention, chat with your child’s pediatrician about options and do some research to find the best program for your child.
Additionally, there are a variety of games you can play and activities you can incorporate that will address executive functioning skills.
Some strategies can be utilized to help your child improve their success and self-esteem with school-based activities, specifically related to math-based tasks.
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