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Dyscalculia

May 19, 2011

Dyscalculia is not as well known as it really should be, despite the fact that it is estimated around 1 in 20 people have it. If you aren’t familiar with it try to imagine dyslexia, but only with math. Students with Dyscalculia will likely struggle with new material, but also have a lot of gaps in their background knowledge.

Many things that are helpful for most kids in learning math such as mnemonics, hands on lessons, extra practice, talking out problems, diagrams and manipulatives become necessary for students with Dyscalculia. The term itself is broad, covering a wide variety of math issues students can have. I’ll try to address some similarities but understand that each student is different, and determining exactly what is giving the student trouble is the key to helping the student move forward. I would argue that for further education students with Dyscalculia, their actual math disability isn’t their biggest problem. You may be saying to yourself “Whaaatttt?!?”, but stay with me here. Try to put yourself in the shoes of a further education student with dyscalculia. You’ve been forced to take a subject that you have struggled with every school day for 10+ years. You’ve probably been told by peers, parents and/or teachers that you’re just plain bad at that subject and it’s possible that no one expects you to get any better. Skills that you are supposed to have mastered, but didn’t (multiplication, division, solving equations, etc) are now smaller parts of more and more complicated problems. Countless times that you thought you were right, but you were told that you’re wrong.

Now imagine trying to solve a somewhat complicated math problem given all that. Many times it ends up a juggling act between cursing math, feeling incredibly anxious and doubting oneself at every step. Actually breaking down the problem and going through the steps becomes nearly impossible with all those other nagging feelings. So at some point the original issue of struggling with math facts, skills and formulas becomes overshadowed by extreme lack of confidence and anxiety. This can often lead to times when students actually get the right answer, but then change it and make it wrong because they simply have no confidence in their math ability.

The successes I’ve had are a result of significant one on one work, which means the student must either be in a college with small class sizes, be assisted by a good tutor or at least having time in the day to meet with their teacher for one on one support. As an educator, the most important tools in your arsenal are patience and the real belief that the student will be able to improve. The more time you can spend actively believing in a student, the more he will start to believe in him or herself. A really important strategy is to recognize each improvement a student makes, and make them aware of it. They may get 10 similar questions wrong with help in between each one, but chances are they are getting closer and closer to the right answer each time if good explanations and help are being given. Students with math anxiety aren’t going to recognize this gradual improvement, and will immensely benefit from you pointing them out. “Brilliant, you’re getting it, now let’s look at that next step.” “Oh nice, you just made a little mistake with that negative, but you’re really starting to get this!” Word choice and tone of voice can make a big difference between a student with Dyscalculia getting up and trying again versus shutting down completely. Confidence will build as the student begins to show success, even if it is little by little. While this kind of positive affirmation may seem silly or even a bit cheesy, it does work.

I’ve also dealt with a few students with Dyscalculia who actually do pretty well with concepts, but have such serious gaps from early math that it can be hard to recognize that they understand the newer material. Identifying and working with those earlier concepts can make a big difference in certain cases.

To sum it all up, any student with a severe lack of confidence in their math abilities is going to have trouble learning at every step of the way. Older students with Dyscalculia are almost certain to have anxiety issues with math and little to no confidence in their abilities, and helping to make improvements in these areas can have a profound effect on their performance when doing math at all levels. The go-to strategies such as hands on lessons, talking out problems, diagrams and manipulatives all can significantly help. However, the best chance for students with Dyscalculia, especially those with low confidence, is to have them work one on one with a patient teacher or tutor who can help them to see their progress and build their confidence bit by bit, showing them that while it may not come easily they can do math.

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