"Dyscalculia"... Don't Let it Fool 'Ya'

April 20, 2018

                        Dyscalculia: Severe difficulty in making arithmetical calculations, as a result of brain disorder.

 Recently, I had a number of kids who were struggling in basic mathematic functions.  Parents will often inquire whether their child has “dyscalculia.”  Even though I’ve tested a couple thousand kids at this point in my career I really have no idea whether I’ve evaluated a child who has dyscalculia.

Take, young Jackson, age 8, a third grader. Described by his parents as possessing many wonderful (mostly nonverbal abilities), he struggles with the most basic of mathematic functions.

“Jackson can look at any car on the road and tell you the model…his recall for that is incredible,” said his dad.  “He’s also an amazing builder and loves coming with me on jobs (dad owns a heating and air conditioning company).”

“At the same time,” the dad continued, “he is unable to understand the concept of the most basic fractions.  I’ve tried with real pizzas and cookies, you name it.  He just can’t understand what a fraction is and that a half, that a half represents two parts of a whole thing. Everyone one of his tests and worksheets comes back with bad grade after bad grade and no attempt at offering any help.”

I see tons of kids who don’t get concepts that most of us take for granted.  It doesn’t surprise me in the least.  They get regular doses of red “X’s”

So much in daily life involves concepts of mathematics that we take for granted that kids like Jackson will understand.  For them it’s totally abstract

Who thinks about the concept that a day is 1/365 of a whole year or 1/7 of a week.

What about time or money?  How many of our kids of concern understand the concept of a minute, hour or quarter as fractions.

There are endless examples.

We forget that so much of mathematics is language and that if we don’t understand the concept, the calculations are going to be virtually impossible.

Samples of Jackson’s papers that parents brought to me were marked all over the place with red  “X’s” or “pay attention more” comments.  I looked over the problems that he got wrong:

Melody draws a quadrilateral with two pairs of opposite sides that appear to be parallel.  Which could be the quadrilateral Melody draws.”

 “Quadrilateral???”  “Opposite???”  “Parallel???  How ridiculous.

Honestly, do you think that a child who can’t understand the concept that a week has seven days is going to begin to understand a word problem involving quadrilaterals?

So, does Jackson have “dyscalculia?” Not from where I sit.

Jackson has a concept deficit. Talking about “quadrilaterals” when he doesn’t even understand what a half represents, is a complete instructional mismatch.

Takeaway Point 

The Jacksons of the world need a lot more patient practice, in portions of the “mathematic pool” where they are remotely comfortable.  Next week we will build on this theme.

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All comments (5)
  • Stan Sterenberg
    April 20, 2018 at 7:00 pm

    As a retired math teacher, I find that asking that particular question to 8-year olds is, at best, problematic. Most 6th and 7th graders would […] Read MoreAs a retired math teacher, I find that asking that particular question to 8-year olds is, at best, problematic. Most 6th and 7th graders would likely have some trouble answering the question as it was posed. A global issue to consider is the difference between abstract thinking (which this problem illustrates) and concrete thinking -- such as problems you can work on with hands-on models. Abstract thinking is a higher level skill, and it develops at a different pace in different students. There are "windows" of development for this kind of thinking, similar to those for when children first learn to talk or to walk. These windows can be as much as two-years wide, so often the answer to the question -- "Why is my child struggling?" -- is, just wait a little while (a few months, or even a year). Adults should ask themselves to recall instances of topics or material with which they struggled, but were eventually successful. Sometimes our brains just need a little extra time to develop the capacity to deal with issues that feel relatively complex when we first encounter them (like tying one's shoes), and then, in retrospect, can seem rather easy. Read Less

    Reply
    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Stanley. I appreciate the input. I agree that patience and time are often very helpful in terms of allowing kids […] Read MoreThanks for the thoughtful comment, Stanley. I appreciate the input. I agree that patience and time are often very helpful in terms of allowing kids to shift into higher levels of development. One of the problems that I see is something I have called "the curriculum ship." That is, the ship leaves port in September and goes full steam ahead until it reaches the other side in June. Many kids fall off and the ship just plows ahead. The curriculum like the worksheet I described in the blog define what the children receive, not meeting the children where they are. For the smooth road kids, they are able to ride out the curriculum and I think if they struggles some, time and patience will get them there. The kids on the rougher road, like Jackson, seem to need a lot more early intervention at very concrete levels, I think. Thanks, again. Read Less

      Reply
  • Amy L.
    May 01, 2018 at 1:22 am

    Sadly enough, we must teach the curriculum and stay with the Scope and Sequence of the district mandates. Every good teacher knows that repetition […] Read MoreSadly enough, we must teach the curriculum and stay with the Scope and Sequence of the district mandates. Every good teacher knows that repetition and review are needed for understanding, but most move on. This is a district administrator or state problem. Not really the teacher's fault! Read Less

    Reply
    • Richard Selznick, Ph.D.
      @Amy L.
      May 04, 2018 at 10:57 am

      Hi Amy: Understood...thanks for your comments. Unfortunately, from where I sit I get child after child who are give an "X" after "X" on things like word […] Read MoreHi Amy: Understood...thanks for your comments. Unfortunately, from where I sit I get child after child who are give an "X" after "X" on things like word problems on worksheets that are clearly overwhelming to them. Sometimes there are comments like, "Need to pay attention" or "Follow directions." I think we are too focused on the curriculum and need to understand that at least a third of the kids have fallen off the curriculum and simply can't handle it. We have no good answers for these kids, in my humble opinion. Read Less

      Reply
    • Amy L.
      @Richard Selznick, Ph.D.
      May 09, 2018 at 11:39 pm

      I agree with you in an idealistic world! Unfortunately, public schools have us following the grade level curriculum. It is super frustrating for […] Read MoreI agree with you in an idealistic world! Unfortunately, public schools have us following the grade level curriculum. It is super frustrating for all! Read Less

      Reply

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