Does my child have dyscalculia?

Maths learning
What are the signs to look out for if you think your child might have dyscalculia or 'number blindness', and what can be done to help?

What is dyscalculia?

If you haven’t heard of dyscalculia, you may have heard of the term ‘number blindness’. Other people liken it to ‘dyslexia with numbers’. In a nutshell, the Department for Education says dyscalculics struggle to understand simple number concepts, ‘lack an intuitive grasp of numbers, and have problems learning number facts and procedures.’

What are the dyscalculia signs to look out for?

Children with dyscalculia find it hard to learn maths techniques that are taught at school, like adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. ‘In general, they often have problems with understanding and remembering the basic concepts of arithmetic such as the basic number facts or recognising “how many”’, says Steve Chinn, a maths expert with many years' experience teaching children with learning difficulties and author of Dealing with Dyscalculia and The Fear of Maths: How to Overcome it (£10, Souvenir Press). ‘Often they remain heavily reliant on counting in ones, rather than recognising and using quantities greater than one.’

If you notice these specific issues in your child by the time they reach the Reception class at primary school, you may have cause for concern:

  • Poor one-to-one correspondence. When we count out coins on a table, most of us move each coin distinctly with a finger as we separate it from the pile. An early sign of dyscalculia is if your child doesn’t touch or move the coins while trying to count them out. ‘Children in Reception class at primary school are expected to be able to reliably count out 10 objects’, says Steve.
  • Failure to recognise small quantities. Early number sense means understanding early number names and attaching a label to small quantities. For example, if you ask your child to look at four random objects laid on a table then say how many there are. ‘By Reception, we’d expect children to be able to identify four objects by sight,’ Steve says.
  • Difficulty recognising that different quantities are bigger and smaller when represented as objects or digits. This ability is about an early understanding of addition, subtraction and estimation.

What can I do to help my dyscalculic child at home?

‘You can’t cure dyscalculia – whatever the underlying difficulties, they’ll probably remain – but you can make a difference to it,’ says Steve. There are lots of counting activities you can do around early numbers with your child if they’re struggling. ‘Encourage them to play around with numbers to improve their number sense, and see the numbers within numbers,’ he continues. ‘For example, recognising that four is one more than three, and is one less than five, and is two lots of two.’ Use things that they can touch, feel and see, as children with dyscalculia often find it easier to learn using concrete materials. Here are some more ideas:

  • Estimation. Put two sets of items on a table, for example eight items next to three items, then four items next to three items. Ask ‘Which is the bigger number? Which pile has less?’ Teaching your child to appraise quantity and estimate is a valuable skill.
  • Working with counters. Put four counters in a square shape then ask your child what they see. Cover up two counters, so they see it’s two lots of two. Next cover up three so they learn it’s three and one.
  • Practise forwards and backwards. Children with dyscalculia can have problems counting back and forth, particularly when it comes to twos and threes.
  • Break down prices. Shopping is a great chance to play around with numbers. If you see something that costs 69p, point out it’s 50p and 10p and 9 pennies. Or it’s 50p and 20p, and you’d get a penny back.

How should I approach my child's school if I’m concerned about dyscalculia?

‘Official dyscalculia screening starts from seven’, says Steve. ‘That’s not to say that you might not have cause for concern any younger, but it’s very hard to diagnose before that age because of other normal developmental issues.’ Start off by asking a teacher if they’ve noticed your child have problems with numbers. Find out their ideas, and if they have any programmes for children making low progress in maths. They might not have much knowledge of dyscalculia or how best to teach a dyscalculic pupil, so it’s good to be able to suggest resources that can help, if necessary.

‘The organisation CatchUp has a good programme that schools can access. I also recommend the book The Dyscalculia Assessment by Jane Emerson and Patricia Babtie (£39.99, Continuum),’ says Steve. Steve Chinn has also produced a series of videos to help children and adults overcome maths difficulties, priced from £1.50 each; Maths Explained offers video lessons about all common maths concepts.