When Lainie Filkow asked her then-eight-year-old daughter what 20 minus 20 was, she thought she was giving her an easy question. But Molly’s answer—one—revealed that something wasn’t clicking in the way her brain processes numbers.
Red flags like this one, and the fact that Molly was falling behind her peers in math and having trouble focusing on her work at school, prompted her parents to get an assessment of her learning profile. It turns out, Molly has a learning disability in math, called dyscalculia. It’s a condition in which someone of average or above-average intellect has difficulty grasping basic math concepts, and the difficulty persists for at least six months.
A preschooler or young school-age kid with dyscalculia would struggle with things like understanding how quantity relates to a number (say, counting out five beads), estimating a quantity, or telling you whether eight is more or less than nine. When the child gets to grade one or two, the learning disability would manifest in struggles with basic mental arithmetic; she might still need to use her fingers to add three plus one.
“Typically, it’s pretty obvious with developmental dyscalculia because they just continue to struggle while other children pick up on fundamental concepts and skills,” says Daniel Ansari, who runs the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at Western University in London, Ont.
If you think your kid might have a learning disability in math, the first step is to talk to her teacher. Learning disabilities like dyscalculia are diagnosed with a psycho-educational assessment performed by a psychologist. This can be done within the school system (although wait times can be long) or it can be done privately (prices typically range from $1,500 to $2,500).
Discovering your child has a learning disability can be hard for parents to grapple with, but it’s important to understand that it doesn’t mean your kid can’t learn. It just means they need more time to learn basic concepts, and they might need things to be taught differently, perhaps using manipulatives (like tiles, beans or coloured chips) or having the information broken down into really small chunks. It can also help to have accommodations made, like having the teacher assign fewer homework problems, getting more time to complete tests and, in certain instances, being allowed to use a calculator or bring manipulatives or a number line to the test.
Molly, who is in grade three, sees a tutor twice a week who pre-teaches the material she will be working on in class and helps with homework. She’s allowed to hand in homework late if the assignment doesn’t correspond with a tutoring day, and she is also given more time for tests. The now-nine-year-old, who also has been diagnosed with inattentive ADD, uses noise-cancelling headphones to concentrate on her work in the classroom.
Ansari stresses that the earlier dyscalculia is identified, the earlier you can provide support that will improve your kid’s success at school and in life. “We know from a lot of longitudinal studies that early math skills are a really critical predictor of later scholastic achievement and also life outcomes like income levels and health,” he says.
The researcher says kids with dyscalculia will sometimes have other learning issues, such as ADD, ADHD or a learning disability in reading, like dyslexia. Signs of dyslexia include having difficulty sounding out words, being a grade level or more behind in reading, continuing to make letter reversals past grade two, and having difficulty spelling.
The good news is that having dyscalculia doesn’t necessarily mean a child will have difficulty with all aspects of mathematics. “Later on in their schooling, children with dyscalculia will learn geometry, and they will learn statistics and data management,” says Ansari. “They might enjoy those kinds of things.” In other words, a career in STEM might still be possible, if that’s what your kid wants. But early intervention is important to master those basic skills before the curriculum gets more complicated.
Filkow recalls her own traumatic experience with math at school. “I struggled so much in math. I wouldn’t understand anything, and every year we would just do something new, and I couldn’t keep up.” She hopes that, by identifying Molly’s disability, she can reduce some of the anxiety around the subject that can sometimes cloud a student’s whole school experience.
“I don’t need her to be a math genius, but I want her to keep up,” says Filkow. “And I want her to want to learn.”