How to help a child with dyscalculia

Although rare, dyscalculia is a learning disorder that impacts a child’s ability to perform basic math problems. Learn the signs and ways to help.

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Key takeaways

  • Often referred to as math dyslexia, dyscalculia is a learning disorder that impacts the region of the brain responsible for performing math.
  • Dyscalculia makes it difficult to recognize numbers, notice basic patterns and count.
  • Using visual aids and manipulatives to teach math can help children who struggle with dyscalculia.

Table of contents

Not unlike most barriers to learning, dyscalculia can be a distressing burden that many children may take on silently. Hard to recognize, it’s not uncommon for children to get upset that they find math difficult while others appear to pick it up without an issue.  

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 parents can help their children avoid this! With a little guidance and the employment of a few tactics we’ll explore here, children will be filled with renewed confidence.

What is dyscalculia?

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 challenges within the overarching subject of math. People with dyscalculia often find it hard to understand concepts such as bigger vs. smaller, and typically have difficulty tackling math problems, from basic arithmetic to more abstract ideas.  

While dyslexia is more widely known than dyscalculia, both can make it hard to properly grasp math. Some label dyscalculia as ‘math 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 math challenging, related to symbols, notation, and sets of facts.  

Another similar phenomenon is math anxiety, which is the apprehension and avoidance a learner may have towards math. While this can also be related to dyscalculia, it’s ultimately a separate barrier to learning.  

Signs of dyscalculia

How do you recognize 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: 

    • Difficulty comprehending quantities such as biggest versus smallest   

    • Difficulty learning basic math facts, including times tables  

    • Difficulty counting money, estimating time, predicting distances

    • Finding the underlying logic of mathematical problems to be abstract and intangible, making it particularly hard to have a deeper understanding of the subject 

How to help a child with dyscalculia

While dyscalculia may seem like a significant obstacle to overcome, it’s certainly manageable! There are plenty of ways teachers and parents can help offer their support. Let’s go over some of the most effective methods for helping 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 visualize concepts and understand the contextual relationship between numbers and the real world.  

Dominoes, for example, are a great way for children to visually recognize 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

For those with dyscalculia, worksheets 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 colored pencils. This will help them understand and categorize numbers easier.  

Not sure how to replace worksheets? DoodleMath 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 visualize concepts, consolidating their understanding while reducing any anxieties they may have about math. And best of all, you can try it for free!

3. Try the Concrete Pictorial Abstract (CPA) approach

Popularized in the Singapore math 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, 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. Know your math vocabulary

As a child works through math problems, they should be encouraged to use math vocabulary. 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 math (for example, plus and add, or subtract and take away), so that they have a stronger understanding of math 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. Scaffold learning

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. 

6. Try DoodleMath

Our math app 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 visualize numbers and consider how they’d apply them in the real world.

Best of all, DoodleMath contains in-app accessibility features including hints and colored 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?

7. Use 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 realize 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 DoodleMath. 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!

Parents, sign up for a DoodleMath subscription and see your child become a math wizard!


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