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Last Updated Wednesday March 29 2017 10:50 AM IST

Heal Thy Self | Why does your smart kid keep failing in Maths?

Nirmala Ferrao
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puzzled kid

One night, I dreamed that I strangled my Maths teacher when she asked me to solve a problem she had put up on the blackboard – something about two trains of different lengths moving in opposite directions at different speeds, and how long it would take them to cross each other...

But most of my nightmares haunted me in the daytime during the maths period. I had trouble recognizing printed numbers on a page. I had problems with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. And if I was asked to recite the multiplication tables, I’d struggle with mumbles for a few minutes, then burst into tears. I was told by teacher after teacher that I was “just lazy”, that I was “not paying any attention at all”, and even, “Why are you acting so dumb?” The other kids all laughed at me. Neither they nor the teachers knew about the daily shouting matches I had with my parents who used to get frustrated trying to help me with my homework, yelling at me that “You’re smart enough to rattle off all the names from the first-generation Pokémon, but you can’t write down what 8 x 12 is?” I had no answer. I decided I was dumb, and would stay dumb forever.

One day, seeing me write “12” for “21”, and “84” for “48”, one of my teachers announced she knew what my problem was: “Dyslexia,” she said, with finality. But she was wrong. I had been a voracious reader as far back as I could remember. By age 10, I was reading both, Charles Dickens as well as Stephen King. And I was writing, too – short stories and poems.

Baffled, one evening I googled in frustration, “Why am I so bad at Maths?” And I got my answer: “Dyscalculia”. It had a name! It was a learning disability, just as dyslexia is. I remember crying with relief: I was not some inferior being! I did a short online test, and showed it to my parents. From then on, they took things in hand. I got the tests and the training that I needed, and things started to look up, although even today there are still glitches and I am told there will always be...”


Ask the average educated person on the street what dyslexia is, and he’ll at least have an approximate idea, and will know that it is a legitimate learning disability. But ask the same person about dyscalculia and the probability is high that he will not have a clue what you’re talking about – or he’ll try to make an educated guess about what such a word could mean. If you try to explain the problems that a person with dyscalculia faces, he’ll likely wave away the subject, saying, “Oh, lots of people are weak in Maths.”

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But dyscalculia is not about being “weak in Maths”. It is a learning disability that impedes a child’s most basic abilities with numbers. Someone with dyscalculia will struggle to tell you whether 7 is more than 5. He fails to see the connection between a set of 5 objects – say, 5 balls – and the numeral “5” or the word, “five”. You might see him counting on his fingers if he is asked “What is 3 + 2?”

math solution

Dyscalculia is defined as difficulty in acquiring basic math skills that is not explained by low intelligence or poor teaching or lack of motivation. The difficulties span a wide range – from trouble with mathematical calculations to trouble understanding the language of mathematics, to trouble recalling data involving numbers.

Dyscalculia goes by other names too, including “math dyslexia” and “math learning disability”. Unlike dyslexia, which is known to be more prevalent among boys than girls, dyscalculia shows no gender bias, at least not so far as current research shows.

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Also, dyscalculia manifests itself in different ways in different children. If your child has dyscalculia, his profile of difficulties will not look exactly the same as that of another dyscalculic child. That said, the basic problem for those who are dyscalculic seems to be an impairment in what has been called the “approximate number sense”. Number sense is an intuitive sense of how numbers work: it is what you use when you look at two apple trees and, without actually counting the fruit, make an estimate as to which tree has more apples. Number sense allows us to compare and order and estimate numbers. If you give a child with poor number sense a book of 300 pages and ask her to open the book to page 150, she may start at the very beginning and turn the pages one at a time. If she passes by page 150, she may not know that she must turn the pages in the opposite direction to go back to it. On the other hand, a child who has good number sense will open the book to approximately the middle and will know by looking at the page number whether to flip the pages forward or back from there.

Most researchers in the field agree that number sense lies at the core of math learning. Studies have found that even 6-month-old infants display this instinctual sense. Those who lack it, says one leading researcher, suffer from a kind of “number blindness”, in the same way that some people suffer from colour blindness.

A summary of the challenges faced by a dyscalculic person would include difficulties with: 

» Number sense

» Basic mental arithmetic: addition, subtraction, division and multiplication.

» Basic arithmetic with use of pen and paper: addition, subtraction, division and multiplication.

» Grasping and remembering math concepts (e.g., radius, diameter, circumference), rules, formulas, sequence (order of operations)

» Counting – needs to use fingers, dots or tally marks to count

» Fluency (speed) when processing numbers.

» Finding different approaches to solve the same math problem

» Keeping score in games like cricket, cards, etc

» Memory for layout of things (for example, numbers on a clock)

» Handling money – notes and change.

What causes dyscalculia?

Researchers have tracked dyscalculia to a fold in the back of the brain, in a specific area of the parietal lobe. This area, they’ve learned, is crucial for that core mental capacity, the approximate number sense.

The risk factors for dyscalculia include:

Heredity. Studies have found that a child with dyscalculia often has a parent or sibling with similar math issues. So, there may be a genetic link.

The prenatal environment. Dyscalculia risk has been linked to alcohol intake by the mother during pregnancy. Prematurity and low birth weight may also play a role, according to some findings.

Other genetic disorders. Dyscalculia is associated with several genetic disorders including fragile X syndrome, Gerstmann’s syndrome and Turner’s syndrome.

Brain injuries. Studies spanning a century have shown that some brain injuries can cause impairments in quantity processing, resulting in a kind of “acquired dyscalculia”.

Tell-tale signs in Pre-school or Kindergarten

The incidence of dyscalculia in primary school children in India has been reported in some surveys to lie between 5.5 and 6%; this is a relatively constant figure across countries in which this disability has been studied. Still, it remains an approximate figure, partly because different groups of researchers use different criteria for what counts as severe math difficulties. In fact, surprisingly little is yet known about dyscalculia; compared to dyslexia, dyscalculia research has attracted much less funding and is estimated to be about two decades behind dyslexia research.


We do know that, untreated, dyscalculia tends to become more apparent as kids get older. But early intervention is premised upon early detection and diagnosis. Warning signs of dyscalculia can be detected as early as the pre-school years. The alarm bells should ring if your child:

» Has trouble learning to count, especially when assigning each object in a group a number

» Has trouble recognizing printed numbers

» Has trouble recognizing number symbols, such as making the connection between the numeral “7” and the word “seven”

» Struggles to connect a number to a real-life situation, such as knowing that “3” can apply to any group that has three things in it — 3 chocolates, 3 cars, 3 boys, etc.

» Has trouble remembering numbers, and skips numbers long after kids the same age can count numbers and remember them in the right order

» Finds it hard to recognize patterns and to sort items by size, shape or colour

» Avoids playing popular games like Snakes and Ladders that involve numbers and counting

Testing and Diagnosis

If you suspect dyscalculia, the assessment and diagnosis should ideally be done by a multi-disciplinary team, an approach followed by the best-run Learning Disability clinics in India (which are all too few at the present time). It is important to rule out conditions like hearing or visual difficulties, low I.Q or familial stress that may also be contributing to math difficulties and under-achievement. A curriculum-based assessment should be done to determine academic performance. A detailed neurological examination as well as comprehensive history-taking also form important parts of the assessment. In the case of small children, the history-taking critically depends on information provided by the parent(s). Therefore, before the exam, it is helpful to observe your child over a period of time, speak to her teachers and take notes about the specific kinds of things she has trouble doing or understanding.

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It is not uncommon for dyscalculia to co-exist with another learning disability like dyslexia, or with another condition such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Some math errors are attributable to inattention to detail and other characteristics of ADHD. Knowing which symptoms are part of which condition makes it easier to find the most effective strategies that will help. Some experts therefore recommend re-evaluating math skills after getting ADHD symptoms under control.


Dyscalculia is a complex learning disability, and treatment needs to be tailored to each affected child’s particular strengths and weaknesses. That is why obtaining an accurate profile is important. While Remedial Education remains the cornerstone of treatment, it may need to be combined with medications and psychotherapy in those cases where the child’s diagnostic profile also includes anxiety and / or depression and / or ADHD.

There are very many tools and strategies that special educators use to help with dyscalculia, including board games, fraction tiles, timers, dice, card games, computer programmes. The idea is to make maths fun and entertaining, and the trick is to find the aids that work best for a particular child.

A research paper from the Learning Disability Clinic at Mumbai’s LTMG Hospital, Sion, emphasises that remedial education should begin early, when the child is in primary school. The sessions, the paper adds, should be attended twice or thrice weekly for a few years for the child to attain academic competence. In the more demanding setting of secondary school, it may be too late to shore up shaky foundations. At this stage, say the researchers, managing the learning difficulty becomes less a matter of remediation and largely a matter of providing the accommodations (such as concessions during the school years and / or board exams) offered by the national boards of education and some state governments.

parents studying

What Parents Can Do

Parenting a child with dyscalculia can be challenging. But you don’t have to be a math expert. There are several ways you can help along the process of remedial learning.

Learn as much as you can. Understanding the nature of dyscalculia is a good first step. Let your child know that you understand what he’s going through, and that you don’t think he’s lazy, unmotivated or not smart. This can give him the encouragement he needs to keep working on that thorny math problem. It may also reduce some of the anxiety or feelings of inferiority he may be experiencing.

Play math games. Use household objects such as toys, clothes-clips or pairs of socks as often as you can to help connect numbers to everyday activities. But try not to structure this into a rigid “maths practice” or force it on your child. That might make him more anxious. Learning is easier when kids are happy and relaxed.

Create a homework area. Help your child be more productive during homework time by carving out a space that has as few distractions as possible. (This is particularly important for children who have ADHD in addition to dyscalculia).

Be upbeat. Let your child know when you see him do something well. Praising effort and genuine achievement can help your child feel loved and supported. It can also give her the confidence to work harder at building skills and help her stay motivated.

(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, now works as a counselling therapist)

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