Spotlight on Dyscalculia (And IEP Accommodations)

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Math dyslexia, mathematics learning disability, and mathematics learning disorder are all other names for dyscalculia. But regardless of what one calls it, dyscalculia is indeed a learning disability in math. 

What is dyscalculia?

Children with dyscalculia have trouble with math at many levels from basic math to abstract math.  These children often struggle with basic concepts like quantity, percentages, time, and much more. It is for this very reason why dyscalculia can make it difficult to do everyday tasks. For example, cooking, grocery shopping, and timeliness all involve basic math skills, also known as “number sense”.

People do not outgrow dyscalculia. Children who struggle with basic math skills will often continue to struggle with those challenges as adults. It is important to become knowledgeable in strategies that can help improve math skills and manage these challenges. We will review modifications in the school setting below that can help improve learning. First, let’s take a look at some signs and symptoms of dyscalculia.

What are some signs and symptoms of dyscalculia in early childhood?

There are many ways math struggles appear in children with dyscalculia.  Signs may vary from person to person and they present differently at different ages.  Problems with “number sense” may show up as early as preschool in some children. Other children develop challenges and symptoms as math gets more complex.  Here are some common signs of dyscalculia from preschool through high school.

Signs of dyscalculia in preschool:

  • Has trouble learning to count
  • The student will skip over numbers when counting long after kids the same age can remember numbers in the correct order
  • The student does not seem to understand the meaning of counting (i.e. when you ask for five blocks, your child just hands you a large group of blocks, rather than counting them)
  • Struggles to recognize patterns
  • Difficulty grasping the meaning of quantities or concepts like largest vs. smallest
  • A student has trouble understanding number symbols (i.e. connection between “7” and the word seven)
  • Struggles to connect a number to an object, like knowing that “3” applies to groups of things like three cookies, three cats, etc.

Signs of dyscalculia in elementary school:

  • Has trouble learning and recalling basic math facts, like 2 + 4 = 6
  • Uses fingers to count instead of using more advanced strategies (i.e. mental math)
  • The student struggles to identify math signs and use them the correct way (i.e. + and ‒ )
  • Has a tough time understanding math phrases, like greater than and less than
  • Has trouble with place value, often putting numbers in the wrong column

What are signs of dyscalculia in secondary school?

Signs of dyscalculia in secondary school:

  • Struggles with math concepts like commutativity (3 + 5 is the same as 5 + 3) and inversion (being able to solve 3 + 26 ‒ 26 without calculating)
  • Challenges understanding the logic behind math
  • Has trouble keeping score in sports games and gym activities
  • Has a hard time figuring out the total cost of things and keeping track of money
  • Avoids situations that require understanding numbers, like games that involve math
  • Struggles to read charts and graphs
  • Has trouble counting money and making change
  • Has trouble measuring things
  • Struggles with judging speed, distance, and directions, and may get lost easily

What are some possible causes for dyscalculia?

Oftentimes people overlook dyscalculia as just being “bad at math.” However, dyscalculia truly presents a real challenge that is based on biology, just like dyslexia is.  Researchers don’t know exactly what causes dyscalculia but they believe it’s at least partly due to differences in how the brain is structured.

Here are two possible causes of dyscalculia:

Genes and heredity: Dyscalculia tends to run in families. Current research shows that genetics may also play a part in problems with math. See https://www.understood.org/articles/en/video-dyscalculia-dyslexia-and-genetics

Brain development: Brain imaging studies have shown some differences between people with and without dyscalculia. The differences have to do with how the brain is structured and how it functions in areas that are linked to learning skills.  Researchers aren’t just looking into what causes dyscalculia, but in fact, also trying to learn if there are strategies that can help “rewire” the brain to make math easier. 

How is dyscalculia diagnosed?

The only way to get a diagnosis for dyscalculia is through an evaluation. Evaluations can be given at any age, but the tests vary depending on the age of the test taker. Kids can get an evaluation for free at school. There are also specialists who do private evaluations for children and adults. Private evaluations can be costly but you can always request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE).  If an IEE is agreed upon by the school the cost of the evaluation will be reimbursed to you by the school.

Evaluators use general intellectual tests, in addition to specific tests just for dyscalculia.  The rationale for additional testing is due to the fact that many people with dyscalculia also often struggle in other areas, like reading or working memory.  The results of these evaluations will show both strengths and challenges that will point to a clear path toward helping your child learn in the way they need.   

Supports and accommodations for dyscalculia

A diagnosis (schools use the word identification) can expedite kids getting the supports and services at school. For example, children might get special instruction in math and other supports to help make math easier to comprehend. Getting the right supports can help your child thrive in school and everyday life.  Below are some suggestions for supports for your child with dyscalculia.  Even in adulthood, the law requires employers to give supports to people with disabilities, including learning disabilities.

Recommended Classroom Accommodations: To succeed in the classroom, students with dyscalculia need access to appropriate supports. Below are some recommendations.

  • Provide the student with a calculator during class and tests
  • Allow extra time on tests
  • Provide a quiet space to work
  • Provide the option to record lectures
  • Allow time to spend in the math resource room
  • In-school tutoring or homework assistance
  • Pencils
  • Provide graph paper to help student keep columns and numbers straight
  • Provide access to math apps and games to practice essential skills in a fun way
  • Give student access to formula sheets
  • Using talking tape measures or talking scales
  • Using pre-measurement guides or jibs
  • Allow the student to review previous lessons before teaching novel skills
  • List the steps and formulas for solving problems
  • Sample problems should remain on the board
  • Highlight keywords or numbers on word problems
  • Use a chart of math facts
  • Allow the use of multiplication tables
  • Breakdown worksheets into sections with large print