What is Dyscalculia?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Many people have heard of dyslexia, which affects how people see letters and causes great difficulty with learning to read fluently. Another term that is now garnering attention is dyscalculia, a series of disorders that make it very challenging for people to learn math skills, including basic arithmetic and counting. Children who persistently cannot seem to get down those arithmetic facts after a few years of trying should be investigated for dyscalculia. By identifying the disorder early on, kids can get learning strategies, support, and accommodations which will make math less challenging, though it may still remain a challenge to stay at grade level with peers.

Dyscalculia makes it difficult for a child to learn math skills.
Dyscalculia makes it difficult for a child to learn math skills.

Early indicators of dyscalculia can be seen as soon as the topic of numbers is introduced in schools, often as early as kindergarten. Children may be able to learn to count forward, but they will be challenged by counting backward, or by skipping numbers. Counting by twos, for instance, might be very challenging to the child with this disorder, and counting backward from ten can also be difficult to achieve.

Children with dyscalculia often get upset over math homework.
Children with dyscalculia often get upset over math homework.

People with dyscalculia usually don’t have strong ideas about what numbers actually represent. They don’t get the sense that 20 is larger than 10 for instance. When they guess on math problems their guesses may be way off. A kid asked what 4 + 4 is might answer with a number lower than four, expressing that they don’t understand the number has to be much larger than four.

Understanding concepts like fact families also may challenge children with dyscalculia. They could memorize that 2 + 3 = 5, but they would not understand that the reversing the order to 3 + 2 results in the same answer. Building logically on number sense usually doesn’t occur for these kids, even if they can read and write numbers normally.

Since basic arithmetic remains out of grasp for many of these kids, basic multiplication is next to impossible. Building on arithmetic facts doesn’t work, and memorization may be extremely challenging. Again the child with this condition won’t understand that reversing order of numbers doesn’t affect product. They might be able to memorize their ones multiplications, but then might be stumped when something is expressed in reverse: 9 X 1 instead of 1 X 9.

Ability to make measurements or understand math concepts like time, money, speed, temperature, and formulas for determining perimeters or area may be extremely challenging. Commonly, these children tend to avoid homework, get upset when they must work out a large amount of math problems on a single page, and can’t take timed tests. They’ll be embarrassed and ashamed if called upon to provide answers that everyone else in the class easily gets, and unfortunately, some teachers and parents may misunderstand the problem, lecturing these students on how they should have memorized their math facts and how they’re not trying. In fact children with dyscalculia are often trying really hard, but they may not be achieving success when they try.

This disorder is relatively recently identified, and has yet to receive the attention that disorders like dyslexia have received. Children who persist in troubles with math should be considered as potentially having dyscalculia and should be tested on the above issues to see if they meet criteria. Assistance is usually in the form of support on a one-to-one basis in class or in pull-out time with special education staff or teachers, employing many different strategies to help the child make the connection between numbers and value, such as using manipulatives, and teaching children at later stages how to operate a calculator, since certain things like times tables may never be fully grasped.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I've had a hard time with maths ever since I was young. It took a while for me to add and subtract when having numbers stacked up when we were learning about it with higher numbers other than 0-10 to say the least.

The years went by, and I would finally get the hang of some of the things that were taught even though it took a bit longer than how most others progressed in it. High school definitely showed how I stunk at that subject and I've even been mocked and "pushed around" by the teacher when she realized about the situation.

Thank you for the info which I finally saw when I was searching for something else, but this caught my attention. *sigh*


This was a good article, thank you!

But, as with all dyscalcylia-related articles, it focuses on children, and it's a little troublesome. As an adult who first heard this diagnosis even existed just about eight years ago, I would like more awareness on how it affects us.

Handing the correct amount of money to a cashier, working out a timetable for a bus line -- we are challenged with different things than those challenges children face.

I say "we", even though I'm not diagnosed. I am convinced this is the source of many childhood embarrassments, but as an adult I've learned my own way of dealing with calculations, and also to ask for help.


Hello Tricia: Thank you for the further insight into this topic. I have this topic as a discussion piece for my Math course. In that discussion, most of my colleagues believe that we as teachers must not label our students as having dyscalculia since the reliable testing is not available to use, but yet they wonder what they should do about a child showing such signs. Please help?

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