What Is Dyscalculia? How to Spot the Signs and Help Your Student Adapt

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What is Dyscalculia? Spot the Signs to Help Your Student | Connections Academy®

When elementary and middle school students struggle in math, it could discourage them from pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. The reasons for underperforming in math can range from math anxiety to an undiagnosed learning disorder such as dyscalculia. Dyscalculia has distinct symptoms that learning coaches can identify to help guide students to the support they need to manage it. 

What Is Dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that affects a student’s ability to absorb number-related concepts—including processing numbers and quantities; remembering math facts like multiplication tables; and performing math calculations. It can make everyday tasks such as counting money or telling time challenging. Researchers estimate that approximately 3 to 6% of school-age children have dyscalculia. 

Dyscalculia is sometimes called “math dyslexia” or “number dyslexia.” However, dyslexia (difficulty with reading) and dyscalculia are distinct learning disorders. What they do have in common is that neither are caused by hearing or vision problems, brain injury, or an intellectual disability

Students with dyscalculia sometimes also have other learning disorders such as ADHDOne study found that about 50% of children with dyscalculia also have dyslexia. 

What Are the Signs of Dyscalculia?

The signs of dyscalculia can differ in each child and show up uniquely at each developmental stage. For example, preschoolers and kindergarteners might have trouble counting upward or sorting objects by size, shape, or color.

Symptoms in elementary and middle school students often include:

  • Difficulty learning fundamental math skills like addition and subtraction

  • Trouble identifying smaller quantities of items just by looking at them

  • Problems understanding and solving word problems

  • Struggles with processing graphs and charts

  • Difficulty keeping track of time

Students with dyscalculia might also show emotional and physical symptoms such as angry outbursts, anxiety or panic attacks, fear of going to school, or frequent stomach aches. 

What Causes Dyscalculia?

There’s no clear answer yet as to what causes dyscalculia. Some evidence suggests that learning disorders have a strong genetic connection. For example, people with dyscalculia are more likely to have close family members with dyscalculia than the general population.

Other researchers have investigated environmental influences—such as low socio-economic status—and differences in brain structure and function as contributing factors. What we do know for sure is that more research is needed to help understand dyscalculia. 

A student video chatting with their teacher who is helping a child with dyscalculia learn better.

How to Help a Child with Dyscalculia

There’s no “cure” for dyscalculia, but the good news is that it’s possible for students to adapt to the disorder with the help of specialized learning programs, accommodations, and other support. 

The first step is to seek support. There are no medical tests that can confirm dyscalculia. Instead, experts recommend:

  • Visiting a healthcare provider to rule out other causes such as vision or hearing impairment, mental health conditions, or brain disorders

  • Reach out to your child’s teacher to discuss your concerns. Share your observations, ask to review your students' records, and open the conversation to any recommendations the teacher may have to start the process of getting stronger support, if needed. 

Dyscalculia Accommodations and Learning Supports

If dyscalculia is identified, you can begin to determine the best accommodations and learning supports for your student. 

Specialized Tutoring

Getting help from a math tutor or other educational specialist who has experience working with students who learn differently is an option for some. The focus is not on improving grades but instead on learning new ways to approach math that work for the student. A more slow-paced learning environment with individual attention can help ease anxiety and allow for space to explore weaknesses and celebrate successes.   

Classroom Accommodations

Students have the right to reasonable accommodations for dyscalculia in the classroom. Some examples include:

  • A quiet space to solve math problems

  • Extra time for completing tests

  • Permission to use a calculator during class and on tests

Get input from teachers, tutors, and--most importantly—the student, who knows themselves and how they learn best. 

Academic Support at Home

Support for a student with dyscalculia doesn’t need to end at school or at a tutoring session. Learning coaches can reinforce progress at home or in other settings. Here are some examples of at-home supports:

  • Play games that involve math problem solving like checkers or work on puzzles together

  • Keep a calculator handy and don’t take away any physical items like beads or colored balls that help them calculate

  • Point out math in everyday situations, such as at the grocery store or in music

  • Help with homework in a patient and understanding way

Don’t Ignore Emotions

It’s also important to support students with the emotional and self-esteem issues that dyscalculia can cause. The anxiety, frustration, or embarrassment they might feel can take a toll. Ways to support students emotionally include:

  • Praise their strengths in other areas, like sports or other academic subjects

  • Let them know you appreciate the extra work they put into learning math

  • Engage them in conversations about what dyscalculia is

  • Listen and validate feelings when you hear negative self-talk

As with all mental health issues, seek professional help if mood problems or troubling behaviors persist or get worse. 

A student practices math by utilizing other dyscalculia strategies.

Other Dyscalculia Strategies

Specialized learning programs, classroom accommodations, and at-home support are sometimes not enough to get a student on the path they need. Another strategy to consider for dyscalculia is online school.

Parents choose online school for many reasons. One of them is to meet the unique needs of a student with a learning disorder. Online school offers a flexible school schedule, a safe learning environment, fewer distractions, and more individual student support than most in-person schools. 

To help you decide if virtual school is right for your student, take our free quiz

More Information About Dyscalculia

Learn more about dyscalculia from the organizations below:

National Center for Learning Disabilities 

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