Many people experience difficulty with math at some point in their lives. The problem is much more debilitating, however, for people with dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is a learning disability that affects a person’s ability to perform the most basic mathematical computations. A math disability can lead to a range of problems both in school and later in life. In today’s fast-paced, competitive world, the ability to perform basic math skills is critical for success.
There is not one particular type of math disability; rather, there are a range of math disabilities and they vary from person to person. For instance, some people have trouble sequencing numbers; others may have difficulty solving basic math problems or have a hard time remembering basic math facts such as multiplication tables.
What causes dyscalculia? Dyscalculia can generally be attributed to weaknesses in one or more of the following skill areas: memory, reasoning and logical thinking, and visual-spatial relationships. In addition, a math disability can stem from math anxiety (or math phobia).
Memory. Memory problems can impact a student’s performance in a number of ways. He may have trouble recalling basis arithmetic facts and rules, for example. Or, he may struggle with remembering the steps needed to solve a word problem or algebraic equation. He may even have difficulties remembering what specific symbols mean (e.g. +, -).
Reasoning and Logical Thinking. Weaknesses in a student’s ability to reason and think logically can result in profound difficulties in mathematical performance. It can lead to problems differentiating between basic mathematical functions such as multiplication, division, addition and subtraction; it can interfere with a student’s ability to choose alternative strategies in problem solving, and it can interfere with a student’s ability to transfer and apply skills to new problems.
Visual-Spatial Relationships. Weaknesses in visual-spatial skills can also lead to a math disability. For instance, it can create problems such as misaligning numbers in columns, an inability to visualize fractions as part of a whole, confusion regarding decimal place values, trouble sorting objects by size, shape and color, difficulties understanding written information on a chalkboard or text book and so on.
Math Anxiety. It is quite possible that a student may not have deficiencies in any of the above-noted skill areas yet still have a math disability. This can be attributed to acute math anxiety, which is a purely psychological disorder. Math anxiety is characterized by an overwhelming and intense lack of confidence in one’s ability to do math.
How is dyscalculia treated? The first step in treating dyscalculia is to recognize that a math disability can be anxiety-producing and even traumatic for some students. Thus, it is imperative that those providing guidance and assistance (teachers, parents, tutors, friends) be infinitely patient and emotionally supportive. The second step in treating dyscalculia is to identify specific weaknesses (e.g., memory issues, sequencing problems, etc.). Once specific problem areas are identified, effective remedial strategies can be implemented and reinforced. Here are some examples of corrective techniques:
Help students to visualize math problems
Provide examples that relate to real-life situations
Use graph paper to help students keep numbers aligned
Spend extra time helping students memorize math facts
Provide one-on-one work with a tutor during after school hours
Make learning the basics fun by using flash cards and computer games
Demystify math and emphasize that it is a skill that can be acquired
When a math disability is detected early and remedied with patience and effective corrective strategies, there is no reason why a student cannot excel at the subject and go on to have a successful career and fulfilling life.