Dyscalculia explained

Child writing numbers on whiteboard
How can you tell if your child has dyscalculia? TheSchoolRun takes a look at this mathematical difficulty and suggests ways to support your child with their learning.

What is dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a condition that affects around 3-6% of the population. It is not simply an aversion or dislike of mathematics but “describes someone at the extreme end of the spectrum, who has ‘severe’ difficulties with maths”, says dyscalculia expert and author Steve Chinn.

Dyscalculia has often been described as dyslexia with numbers, but is in fact a completely different condition. It refers to a dysfunction in a person’s ability to understand or work with quantitative or spatial information. It can affect people in different ways, in specific areas, and is predominantly concerned with numbers and arithmetic rather than other elements such as geometry. Brian Butterworth, the leading expert on dyscalculia, explains that a person with dyscalculia may be “a good mathematician but still hopeless with simple calculations”. It's no wonder, then, that it often goes undiagnosed.

Symptoms of dyscalculia

There are different types of dyscalculia, ranging from moderate to severe. A child most likely will be performing below expectations and have specific difficulties in certain areas, such as understanding number values or directions.

Number operations such as addition and subtraction may cause difficulties, and children may struggle to distinguish between the symbols or even to understand that there is more than one way to carry out a sum. Translating the mathematical problem into concrete or physical examples can also prove challenging.

Children with dyscalculia may also have difficulties with:

  • understanding sequences and instructions
  • money – the fact that a coin may represent different values
  • acquiring spatial orientation and navigational skills – distinguishing left from right and map directions
  • understanding abstract concepts such as time – the fact that a clock represents time and that time can be past, present and future.

Struggling with these difficulties often results in low self-esteem, feelings of failure and much frustration, which in turn can lead to disruptive behaviour. A child will also begin to associate maths with negative feelings and become highly stressed or anxious about lessons.

Supporting a child with dyscalculia

A report from the Basic Skills Agency found that poor numeracy skills can be more of an obstacle to gaining and keeping a job than poor literacy skills. It is therefore vital to ensure that all children, whatever their abilities, have access to constructive mathematical teaching tailored to their specific learning needs.

Try these tips to help develop your child's maths skills:

  • Provide real examples of when mathematical processes might be used, as these will be more memorable – shops are a great mathematical playground.
  • Break up maths tasks into stages, ensuring that they understand each step before they continue.
  • Ensure your child repeats and practises what they have learnt – encourage them to work independently on this.
  • Ask your child plenty of questions about what they are doing, so they can explain mathematical processes in their own way.
  • Give plenty of praise and positive feedback to your child – it will go a long way to giving them back their confidence with maths.

Dyscalculia expert Steve Chinn has produced a series of videos to help children and adults overcome maths difficulties, priced from £1.50 each. Go to Maths Explained for more information.