Dyscalculia: 5 Strategies for Supporting Students

Many students struggle with math and math anxiety, but for those with dyscalculia, math classes and tests present seemingly insurmountable obstacles that can affect academic success and lower self-esteem. People with the math-related learning disability dyscalculia have a deficit in the brain’s ability to process number-related information. They may have trouble with math operations, memorizing multiplication tables and understanding math concepts. In a broader sense, they have difficulties with sequencing information, budgeting time and keeping schedules.

There are a number of ways you can support a child with dyscalculia – both in school and out. One is to provide academic supports. Kids with dyscalculia need extra support to help them stay on track in math class, handle homework and deal with tests. Trying different types of support can help you and your child find the right tools for their needs. Examples of academic supports can include tutors, tools, accommodations, and more.

Educational specialists or a math tutor, especially one who has experience working with students who learn differently, can help your child learn to approach math problems in a more effective way. Tutoring will also allow your child to practice his math skills in a slower, less stressful setting. Supportive tools and tech can also help your child navigate difficult problems.

Students with dyscalculia will benefit from access to these tools:

  • A calculator they know how to use
  • Pencils (for erasing!)
  • Graph paper to help keep columns and numbers straight
  • Pre-set reminders and alarms to help keep track of time
  • Math apps and games to practice essential skills in a fun way

Students with dyscalculia may also benefit from the following accommodations at school:

  • Access to a calculator during class and tests
  • Extra time on tests
  • A quiet space to work
  • The option to record lectures and/or access to the teacher’s notes
  • Time in the math resource room (if school offers one)
  • In-school tutoring or homework assistance

Another essential part of supporting a child with dyscalculia is to address anxiety and build self esteem. Kids who have a hard time with math often feel serious anxiety when it comes to doing any math-related task, especially homework or tests. Oftentimes, this anxiety becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Meredyth Kravitz, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist.. “Kids who struggle with math often become so anxious that the anxiety takes over. They’re unable to concentrate on learning the problem or passing the test because they’re worried about doing badly,” Kravitz explains. As kids learn strategies to manage the anxiety provoked by math challenges, they become more able to absorb information and techniques that can help.

dyscalculiaIf your child has dyscalculia, they may feel frustrated or embarrassed when asked to do things that are difficult for them, especially during class or in front of others. Additionally, dyscalculia’s impact on day-to-day activities — playing board games, making correct change, or even reading clocks accurately — can cause kids to feel self-conscious and avoidant. Helping your child understand their learning disorder can give them the tools they need to manage dyscalculia both academically and emotionally. Talk to your child about the specific difficulties dyscalculia can cause so they can identify why certain things are harder for them than others. Build up your child by acknowledging struggles and praising hard work, and always offer positive reinforcement. It’s also essential to combat any negative self-talk you may hear. If your child starts saying things like “I’m just stupid,” correct them; they aren’t stupid, their brains just work a little differently.

Grounding abstract mathematical information in the physical world can help dyscalculic students succeed. Here are five specific strategies for making math concepts from basic arithmetic to advanced algebra easier to understand and remember.

1. Talk or write out a problem. For students with dyscalculia, math concepts are simply abstracts, and numbers mere marks on a page. Talking through a problem or writing it down in sentence form can help with seeing relationships between the elements. Even restating word problems in a new way can help with organizing information and seeing solutions.

2. Draw the problem. Drawing the problem can also help visual learners to see relationships and understand concepts. Students can “draw through” the problem with images that reflect their understanding of the problem and show ways to solve it.

3. Break tasks down into subsets. Dyscalculic students can easily get overwhelmed by a complex problem or concept, especially if it builds on prior knowledge — which they may not have retained. Separating a problem into its component parts and working through them one at a time can help students focus, see connections and avoid overload.

4. Use real-life cues and physical objects. Relating math to the practicalities of daily life can help students with dyscalculia make sense of concepts and see the relationships between numbers. Props like measuring cups, rulers and countable objects that students can manipulate can make math concepts less abstract.

5. Review often. Because students with dyscalculia struggle to retain math-related information, it becomes hard to master new skills that build on previous lessons. Short, frequent review sessions — every day, if necessary — help keep information fresh and applicable to the next new task. Creating written or drawn references such as cards or diagrams can help with quick reviews.

Like other learning disabilities, dyscalculia affects student success both in and out of the classroom. Study strategies that bring the abstract world of mathematics down to earth with visual and verbal cues and physical props can help students with dyscalculia overcome obstacles to make sense of math.

Does your child have a learning disability? Boston Tutoring Services can help. Please click here to see what services we offer.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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