Two of the most common side-effects of dyscalculia are low self-esteem and low self-confidence, and it is widely recognised that if these factors can be removed the individual can overcome his or her dyscalculia very much more quickly, than if those factors stay in place.

Unfortunately, those of us who work with children and teenagers with dyscalculia quite naturally focus on helping these children to handle mathematics – and although we may well do our best to help overcome the impact of low self-confidence we generally can’t find the time to do that much in this area.  We are too busy focussing on the dyscalculia itself!

Meanwhile the same problem arises for the parent – daily life is busy, the parent may well be out at work, there may well be other children in the house all with their own needs.

But meanwhile the child is wondering why she or he can’t “get” basic maths.  Is the individual really lazy or stupid?  How come others can all do it so easily?

One very successful way of overcoming this dual problem of dyscalculia plus low self-esteem is the use of the “Growth Mindset” alongside a programme aimed at overcoming the effects of dyscalculia.   With a growth mindset, people believe that their abilities can be developed.  It is not that they are doomed to be bad at maths forever because of their dyscalculia.  That is merely the starting point from which they can grow.

Now this might seem to contradict the notion that dyscalculia is a genetic problem and as such cannot be “cured”.   That is indeed true, but if the way the child’s brain works is seen simply as a starting point, then further progress can be made.

The problem we have is that in many situations the “growth mindset” is missing – and this makes it incredibly difficult for the dyscalculic child to move forward.  And the problem can be reinforced if the parent is saying, “Don’t worry about spelling; I was never any good at maths and I’ve done all right.”

That seems reassuring in a way, but it also creates a barrier against progress.

So this idea of “Growth mindset” gives us a problem – it seems to go against the traditional vision of dyscalculia.  But even if it can work, can it be used in a practical way in the school?

In fact a wide range of research shows that the adoption of a “growth mindset” programme in a school can help all the pupils and students in the school.  It is easy to introduce, can be applied with a large number of pupils and students and it can help progress to be made with a whole range of difficulties that pupils and students might face.

The improvement in student learning among those who have undertaken a simple growth mindset programme is an increase in the rate of learning of around 20% - all for a few hours a year spent studying the growth mindset programme - a phenomenal achievement. 

Indeed, as the TES review of the subject concluded in a review at the end of 2019, “such interventions would appear to be among the most cost-effective things that schools can do to increase student achievement.”

In fact even a single one-hour growth mindset intervention programme can have a phenomenal impact.

In such work, challenge seeking is established within the school – and different children work on different personal challenges.  The children undertake a series of challenging courses – and through these they learn that they can indeed change and improve their lives.   This then in turn encourages them to challenge themselves over the issue of dyscalculia.  They are still dyscalculic, but now they believe that they can work with their dyscalculia so that it does not hold them back.

As the TES article concluded, “Growth mindset interventions are more effective when students in the school, on average, are more open to undertaking challenging tasks”. (TES 13 December 2019).  

In essence “Growth mindset” is the idea that, with effort, it's possible to increase intelligence levels, talents, and abilities and overcome specific difficulties. Students who demonstrate a growth mindset believe their abilities develop over time, tend to seek out opportunities to gain new knowledge and broaden their skills, and do not typically shy away from challenges." (Kazakoff & Mitchell, 2017).

Against this, within the “fixed mindset” concept is the view that intelligence and issues related to specific problems such as dyscalculia are static, leading students to believe that their ability to progress is based not on their application and hard work but on whether they possess the required abilities.

Clearly the dyscalculic child does not have the ability to learn to undertake certain mathematical challenges, and so the child shies away from the challenges inherent with being dyscalculic.

According to Kazakoff & Mitchell, "Students who possess a fixed mindset are often preoccupied with the notion of high performance and will seek opportunities where they can prove their skills while avoiding situations where their weaknesses might be revealed." That of course does not help the dyscalculic child overcome her or his dyscalculia.

2014 research by Claro & Paunesku revealed that students who demonstrate a growth mindset:

  • perform better than students with a fixed mindset, significantly outscoring them in the areas of maths and literacy;
  • are more likely to recognize the importance of effort in academic success;
  • seek out challenging academic tasks to enhance learning; and
  • value critical feedback.

Pupils and students with a growth mindset are generally given an education that incorporates nine separate approaches which are based on these points

1. Provide attainable challenges.

2. Give opportunities to face obstacles.

3. Teach and model good attitudes.

4. Teach how to accept constructive criticism.

5. View failure as learning.

6. Provide group learning opportunities.

7. Celebrate Successes and Minimize Failures.

8. Provide Opportunities to Celebrate the Success of Others.

9. Teach perseverance and the power of YET – as in you can’t do this yet, but keep going.

Thus a course for dyscalculic pupils or students can work alongside the teaching of the growth mindset so that the dyscalculic individual comes to believe that she or he is not pre-destined to fail, but is able to succeed, the success is more likely to be achieved, and will be achieved more quickly.  The growth mindset in short greatly speeds up the learning programme, by giving the pupil or student the belief in ultimate success.