How to help a child with dyscalculia

A girl writing maths equations using white chalk on a blackboard

Not unlike most barriers to learning, dyscalculia can be a distressing burden that many children may take on silently. Sometimes, it can be hard to recognise, with learners feeling upset that they find certain aspects of maths particularly difficult, while others appear to pick them up without an issue.  

It may seem worrying, and there’s no denying that dyscalculia has the potential to negatively impact a child’s relationship with numbers. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways that adults can help learners to avoid this! With some support, guidance and the employment of some tactics we’ll explore here, children will be filled with renewed confidence, ready to break through any barriers with a resilient mindset.

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What is dyscalculia?  

Let’s start from the beginning. Before anything else, it’s important to understand just what dyscalculia is. Essentially, dyscalculia is a consistent difficulty in understanding numbers.  

Regardless of age, experience and ability level, this can lead to a number of challenges within the overarching subject of maths. People with dyscalculia often find it hard to understand concepts such as bigger vs. smaller, and typically have difficulty tackling maths problems, from basic arithmetic to more abstract ideas.  

While dyslexia is more widely known than dyscalculia, both can make it hard to properly grasp maths. Some label dyscalculia as ‘maths dyslexia’, but this should be avoided, as they’re very different things entirely. In fact, around 60 – 90% of children with dyslexia find particular aspects of maths challenging, related to symbols, notation, and sets of facts.  

Another similar phenomenon is maths anxiety, which is the apprehension and avoidance a learner may have that stands in the way of their performance in maths. While this can also be related to dyscalculia, it’s ultimately a separate barrier to learning.  

Signs of dyscalculia  

So, how can you recognise if a child has dyscalculia? The fact is, this may look different from person to person. Signs may start to show during the early years of education for some, while others begin to reveal their barriers later on, when more abstract mathematical problems enter the picture.  

However, there are particular signs that you can look for that can give a good indication. For example, as we’ve briefly touched upon: 

  • A child may have difficulty comprehending quantities such as biggest vs. smallest  
  • It may be difficult for them to remember basic maths facts, including times tables 
  • They could struggle with counting money, estimating time, predicting distances and mentally retaining numbers  
  • Behind all of this, they may find the underlying logic of mathematical problems to be abstract and intangible, making it particularly hard to have a deeper understanding of the subject 
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How to help a child with dyscalculia  

Now, while all of this may seem like a significant obstacle to overcome, it’s certainly manageable! There are plenty of ways that teachers and parents can help, offering their support through actionable steps. Let’s go over some of the most effective methods, focusing on how to help a child with dyscalculia.

1. Use visual aids 

Visual aids can be used in a number of different ways, and they’re a great way to help children visualise concepts and understand the contextual relationship between numbers and the real world.  

Dominoes, for example, are a great way for children to visually recognise number patterns, instead of relying on counting individual dots. Dice can also be used. Play games with these, or just have your child grow confident by using them independently.  

2. Avoid worksheets! 

Worksheets are commonplace in mathematics, but for those with dyscalculia, the mere presence of them can be overwhelming!  

Dynamic and interactive games are a much more appealing approach that can fully immerse children. Problems are presented to them as enjoyable challenges they have to solve, instead of confusing strings of numbers across a piece of paper.  

In school, it may be impossible to avoid worksheets, so if they do crop up, encourage prescriptive scaffolding and coloured pencils. This will help them understand and categorise numbers easier.  

Not sure how to replace worksheets? DoodleMaths is an app that’s specifically designed to support learners with dyscalculia. From measuring angles with a protractor to weighing items on a scale, it uses fun, hands-on activities that help children visualise concepts, consolidating their understanding while reducing any anxieties they may have about maths. And best of all, you can try it for free!

Or discover Doodle for schools

3. Encourage the Concrete Pictorial Abstract (CPA) approach 

Popularised in the Singapore maths curriculum, the CPA approach is a tried and tested method that has spread through classrooms across the world. In a nutshell, the approach is broken down into three steps:

  1. Concrete items, such as blocks or Dienes, are given to learners so that they have a physical representation of the number problem 
  1. They then move from these physical items to pictorial representations, such as bar models 
  1. Finally, once confident, children are given the abstract, in the form of symbols and numerals  

Learners are encouraged to move fluidly between stages, advancing only when they’re comfortable.  

While this approach is great for all abilities, it’s particularly effective for those with dyscalculia, as it involves using visual cues and scaffolding throughout the entire process. 

4. Become familiar with mathematical vocabulary  

As a child works through maths problems, they should be encouraged to talk them through. This is particularly helpful if their language skills are strong, as the connection could make the process much easier.

Discuss how there are multiple ways to say the same word in maths (for example, plus and add, or subtract and take away), so that they have a stronger understanding of maths in relation to language. Doing this will also make them feel much more confident about their learning, which in turn will help them feel comfortable sharing their ideas in the classroom.

5. Use DoodleMaths ‘little and often’

As mentioned above, DoodleMaths is specifically designed to support children with dyscalculia.

Rather than using long, number-heavy questions, all of Doodle’s exercises are fully interactive, creating an immersive experience where children can put their learning into practice as they go. It even rewards their effort over ability, enabling every child, regardless of their ability, to experience ongoing success!

In addition, the app uses short, hands-on summaries to teach learners about new concepts. As part of this, numerical values are represented by blocks and other visual prompts, helping children to visualise numbers and consider how they’d apply them in the real world.

Best of all, DoodleMaths contains in-app accessibility features including hints and coloured overlays, empowering every child to work independently. It also includes audio dictation for each question, which is a particularly helpful feature for less confident readers. Why not give the app a try?

Or discover Doodle for schools

6. Provide scaffolding and extra support 

If a child’s work is scaffolded and their learning outcomes are clearly presented, they’ll have much more access to the problems at hand. This can range from highlighting keywords to having a clear, visual model of the steps toward a problem’s completion.  

Where you can, try to provide extra learning resources, give more time during assessments, or have a dedicated area for children to access further assistance. If a child knows they’re being supported from multiple angles, they’ll be more likely to show resilience and take on new challenges. 

7. Take a personal judgement   

The fact is: all kids are different! Each child has their own style of learning that should be recognised and accommodated for.  

Whether you’re a teacher or a parent, it’s important to realise that while dyscalculia can certainly be frustrating, you’re still able to offer meaningful support. Tailor it toward the child’s strengths and acknowledge that the road will have a few hurdles along the way. Just remember: with proper support and guidance, these hurdles can be overcome!  

Finally, if you’re looking for a specific tool to help you support a child with dyscalculia, don’t forget to check out DoodleMaths. Designed to be used for just a few minutes a day, it’s proven to boost confidence and ability in the subject – and best of all, you can try it for absolutely free!

Or discover Doodle for schools

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