Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability in math. Kids with dyscalculia may have difficulty understanding number-related concepts or using symbols or functions needed for success in mathematics.
Dyscalculia is a common learning issue that impacts kids’ ability to do math. It doesn’t just affect them at school, however. The challenges can also create difficulties in daily life. The good news is there are various supports and strategies that can help kids gain the skills they need.
The more you know about your child’s challenges, the better able you’ll be to get her the help she needs. This overview can answer many of your basic questions about dyscalculia. It can also lead you to more in-depth information and tools you can use.
If you think your child might have dyscalculia, here are steps you can take. And if you recently found out your child has dyscalculia, learn what you can do next.
What is it?
Dyscalculia is a lifelong condition that makes it hard for kids to perform math-related tasks. It’s not as well known or understood as dyslexia. But some experts believe it’s just as common.
Experts don’t yet know for sure if dyscalculia is more common in girls or in boys. But most agree it’s unlikely that there’s any significant difference.
Kids with this learning issue have trouble with many aspects of math. They often don’t understand quantities or concepts like biggest vs. smallest. They may not understand that the numeral 5 is the same as the word five. (These skills are sometimes called number sense.)
Kids with dyscalculia also have trouble with the mechanics of doing math, such as being able to recall math facts. They may understand the logic behind math, but not how or when to apply what they know to solve math problems.
They also often struggle with working memory. For example, they may have a hard time holding numbers in mind while doing math problems with multiple steps.
Dyscalculia goes by many names. Some schools refer to it as a mathematics learning disability. Doctors sometimes call it a mathematics disorder. You may even hear kids and parents call it math dyslexia. (The term math dyslexia can be misleading, though. Dyscalculia and dyslexia are not the same thing.)
Dyscalculia can cause different types of math difficulties. So symptoms may vary from child to child. Observing your child and taking notes to share with teachers and doctors is a good way to find the best strategies and supports for your child.
Dyscalculia often looks different at different ages. It tends to become more apparent as kids get older. But symptoms can appear as early as preschool. Here’s what to look for:
Has trouble learning to count and skips over numbers long after kids the same age can remember numbers in the right order.
Struggles to recognize patterns, such as smallest to largest or tallest to shortest.
Has trouble recognizing number symbols (knowing that “7” means seven).
Doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of counting. For example, when asked for five blocks, she just hands you an armful, rather than counting them out.
See more signs of dyscalculia in preschool.
Has difficulty learning and recalling basic math facts, such as 2 + 4 = 6.
Struggles to identify +, ‒ and other signs, and to use them correctly.
May still use fingers to count instead of using more advanced strategies, like mental math.
Struggles to understand words related to math, such as greater than and less than.
Has trouble with visual-spatial representations of numbers, such as number lines.
See more signs of dyscalculia in grade school.
Has difficulty understanding place value.
Has trouble writing numerals clearly or putting them in the correct column.
Has trouble with fractions and with measuring things, like ingredients in a simple recipe.
Struggles to keep score in sports games.
See more signs of dyscalculia in middle school.
Struggles to apply math concepts to money, including estimating the total cost, making exact change and figuring out a tip.
Has a hard time grasping information shown on graphs or charts.
Has difficulty measuring things like ingredients in a simple recipe or liquids in a bottle.
Has trouble finding different approaches to the same math problem.
Researchers don’t know exactly what causes dyscalculia. But they’ve identified certain factors that indicate it’s related to how the brain is structured and functions.
Here are some of the possible causes of dyscalculia:
- Genes: Research shows that part of the difference in kids’ math scores can be explained by genes. In other words, differences in genetics may have an impact on whether a child has dyscalculia. Dyscalculia tends to run in families, which also suggests that genes play a role.
- Brain development: Brain-imaging studies have shown some differences in brain function and structure in people with dyscalculia. The differences are in the surface area, thickness and volume of certain parts of the brain. There are also differences in the activation of areas of the brain associated with numerical and mathematical processing. These areas are linked to key learning skills, such as memory and planning.
- Environment: Dyscalculia has been linked to fetal alcohol syndrome. Prematurity and low birth weight may also play a role in dyscalculia.
- Brain injury: Studies show that injury to certain parts of the brain can result in what researchers call acquired dyscalculia.
It’s not clear how much these brain differences are shaped by genetics and how much by experience. But researchers are trying to learn if interventions can “rewire” the brain to make math easier. This concept is known as neuroplasticity.