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Imagine not being able to calculate a tip on a restaurant bill or the amount of change you should receive from a cashier after purchasing a coffee.

These are basic tasks that most people do unconsciously in their daily lives. But, for individuals with dyscalculia, they can prove extremely challenging and stressful.

Just as dyslexia causes difficulty with words and reading, dyscalculia makes understanding numbers and mathematical concepts an ongoing struggle.

“Numbers don’t give away hints of quantity in their symbol forms,” said Howard Eaton, founder and director of Eaton Arrowsmith. “Children with severe dyscalculia can read or hear the number “4” being said out loud, but not relate the word or symbol to a specific quantity.”

Dyscalculia makes connecting symbols, words and quantities challenging. 

More than Math

While it is often called a math disability, dyscalculia can impact much more than an individual’s success in mathematics class. After all, numbers are part of many aspects of life – from paying for items at stores and budgeting money to telling time.

Dyscalculia can also affect a person’s time management (how long is 90 minutes?), ability to follow a calendar (how many days are in a month?), or human relationships that involve mathematical communication (working with banks, or getting quotes for particular services).

Three to six per cent of the population is thought to have this learning disability. That’s roughly the same percentage as dyslexia. However, dyscalculia is nowhere near as understood.

“Academics are aware that there has been significantly more research done in reading than

mathematics,” Eaton said. “Math hasn’t been given the same level of importance even though

we use it every day.”

Numbers are not only needed for daily tasks, they play a role in many professions. Without math skills, careers like engineering, architecture, and accounting become impossible.

Number Sense 

Dyscalculia affects individuals in different ways at different ages, but the most common problem is number sense.

If you were to show a person without dyscalculia the below chart, one square at a time, they would be able to tell you how many dots are in each.

By the third square, they would start to see a pattern emerge and, instead of counting each dot, would view them in two groups of four to make eight. By the fourth square, counting the number of dots in a timed situation would become difficult. Most people without dyscalculia would identify a doubling pattern and say the fourth square has 16.

Individuals with dyscalculia, however, would need to count all the dots to come up with the number. They could see that there are clearly more dots in square four than one. But if you were to ask them how many dots they would get if they doubled the number in the second square, they might not be able to tell you 8.

Dyscalculia and Education 

In the past, teachers used drill and kill exercises – repetition without context – to help students with dyscalculia strengthen their number sense. Although tiring at times, this approach actually helped a lot of children develop math skills.

But Eaton said these exercises have, for the most part, been removed from the education system because they tend to reward success and shame failure.

“Teachers used to put the names of the fastest kids on the board and the slower kids wouldn’t get recognized,” Eaton said. “It was a technique that frightened children with dyscalculia.”

He believes repetition needs to play a role in teaching students with this learning disability, but that it can be balanced with fun and in a way that doesn’t make individuals feel bad about themselves.

For example, numerous computer programs use repetition, visually stimulating screen environments and individualized reward-based motivation to develop math abilities.

“It takes repetition and a lot of drills to be good at something,” Eaton said. “We just need to explain to students that they have to be patient.” He added that there are multisensory math programs and tutors that try to build math concepts using manipulatives.

Dyscalculia and EA

Children with dyscalculia often enrol in Eaton Arrowsmith because they are still falling behind their peers even after using some of the above methods. They need time and extra attention to catch up.

According to Eaton, teachers in mainstream schools just don’t have the staffing resources to provide extra help.

Eaton Arrowsmith combines specific cognitive interventions with one-on-one instruction and drills to help children with dyscalculia build math skills and confidence in school and daily life.

“The key is to strengthen weaker areas of the brain so that concepts and content can be absorbed, understood and retained,” Eaton said.