Because it is widely established that dyscalculia originates from a genetic issue within the individual and we cannot change our genes, it is sometimes felt that nothing can be done to help dyscalculics improve their maths.
This is not the case at all, and over time two different approaches to helping to improve maths in dyscalculic children have been developed. One involves teaching maths in a very different way from that used generally in schools, and the other involves helping dyscalculic children develop and enhance the way they use their brains.
In this article I deal with this second point: helping children utilise their brains in different ways.
This approach can appear to be somewhat surprising, in that the brain is considered to be the brain - it is what it is and what goes on in the brain is fixed. But in reality the brain is a highly adaptive organ which can adjust to changing circumstance and changing situations.
Different people react to the world in many different ways. Some, if told that dinner tonight will be at 8pm and not 7pm as usual, will automatically remember that and adjust to the change of events. Others will instantly forget. Some of these will subsequently deny they were ever told of the change, and indeed in doing so they are not lying because as far as the accessible part of their memory is concerned they were not told.
Of course over time some will realise that they are poor at remembering specific pieces of information that they are given out of context, as it were, and so whenever this happens they write the information in a notebook kept just for this purpose.
To take a different tack, some people if asked to describe the scene outside their window will give only a generalised report. Others will be able to describe the situation in great detail. And some of those who are poor at giving descriptions will work hard on the issue and train themselves to take much more note of what they see around them.
Yet another example: some find it incredibly hard to remember other people’s faces, while most retain a clear image of what a person recently met looks like. Some, when involved in a road traffic accident, can immediately describe the other car. Others find it hard to conjure up any image at all.
And here is one final example: many people when asked to describe a sequence of events can run their memory back and go through the events. Others find this very difficult, even if the events in question are fairly commonplace such as the act of preparing to have a bath or preparing to go out on a winter’s day.
The contention that those of us who work at the Dyscalculia Centre make, is that it is possible to train the brain of almost everyone to be more proficient than it is naturally in virtually all of these areas. Further we take the view that this is not hard, but it does require regular practice, so that ultimately the practice becomes a habit.
Now at this point I must deviate from the main thrust of this piece to say a word about habits.
All of us have habits - many more habits than we like to admit. Indeed it is a very common human trait to believe that we don’t have habits and that every action and decision is under our direct control, but this is not true. For without habits we could not function. Habits mean that we don’t have to think about most of what we do most of the time, and thus can focus our attention on the more important and more unexpected issues in life.
Indeed one only has only to think about something complex that we do every day to realise how habitual many of our actions can be. Take driving, for example. As one can see with a learner driver, driving is a phenomenally complex task, and yet for those of us used to driving, we can do it without thought while listening to the radio or talking to a passenger.
But habits come at a cost - they are easy to pick up and hard to get of. Anyone who has got into the habit of biting his fingernails or repeatedly checking the time or adjusting one’s glasses or saying “err” in each sentence or … well anything in fact - will know that habits are incredibly hard to stop. It can be done but the whole point about habits is that they are so deeply embedded that they cannot easily be removed.
Thus quite often when we want to change a dyscalculic person’s behaviour we need to break a habit. And if we don’t have that habit, that is going to be very hard to do.
I am going to describe approaches to helping dyscalculic people which flow from the view of the world set out above.
First I am going to consider sequences and second keeping track of time.
If you ask some dyscalculic children to describe to you the exact sequence of events involved in having a bath they may well get it wrong while those of a similar age and intellect who are not dyscalculic can get it right. Even if you stress that you want all the details of everything that has to be done, some can still miss vital elements out.
They might for example start off by saying, “I’d turn the taps on, and check that the water is not too hot nor too cold. But actually one really ought to put the plug in first. They might say that as the bath got filled they would test the temperature of the water carefully, and then if it was ok, they’d get in the bath - without suggesting that first they would need to take their clothes off.
And so on. Going through scenarios such as this in great detail, and then repeating the exercise later can help all children focus - and it can help dyscalculic children particularly, because they often find sequencing difficult. And that’s important, because sequencing is a central part of maths.
Of course the child might well get frustrated if you ask her or him to run through the same sequence too often, so you need to change the scenario. For example the exact sequence of getting up and having breakfast. The sequence involved in going to school...
All such activities push the child’s brain into handling sequences - something that some find incredibly natural and normal and others find takes a lot of thought. But, and this is the key point, the more sequencing is practised the easier it gets, and the easier it gets to learn mathematical sequences such as the times tables.
Second, the issue of time. Not all dyscalculics have difficulty with time, but some do. It is an important skill to have, and getting to grips with time can be very helpful in all walks of life. Here again we may start with sequencing and talk about what happens through the day at certain times including for example typical times for meals, homework, getting up, favourite TV programme, etc. Then one can ask the individual to put together a sequence of events for a certain day, with their times.
All such activities can do two things. First they will help identify the individual’s areas of difficulties, and secondly they strengthen and stretch the memory processes by forcing the memory into areas of work that the individual might shy away from because it is the area of difficulty.
Even if the memory strengthening activity has no benefit in itself (such as asking the child to remember where everyone sits in class) it helps strengthen the memory. Indeed even encouraging the child to remember the lyrics to favourite songs can be a helpful strengthening if you feel that the child is having greater problems with parts of the memory than others in the class.
There is one final benefit from this type of work. It both encourages the child to work on getting the short term memory (the working memory) more and more active, and it allows you to see where the individual is having particular difficulties with processes that you might consider to be normal. Together these two developments can be very useful, for it allows you to focus on areas of memory where the child has a problem, while at the same time improving memory without endlessly asking the child to work on her or his maths times tables.