Dyscalculia: the six most common questions
The lockdown period has been the busiest spell encountered by The Dyscalculia Centre in our near 20 year history.
The cause of the activity has not been hard to trace: more parents than normal have been working with their own children at home, and some have noticed that the child in question seems to find maths much more difficult than other subjects.
And so the suspicion can arise - could this difficulty with the subject be more than maths simply being an area of work that the child finds difficult? Could this be a case of dyscalculia?
It has always been my habit to jot down the essence of each enquiry, just so I could see what the main areas of concern are. And during the lockdown period I thought I might pull these together and give my own very short and simple answers to each topic. Of course, you may not agree with the answers I give – but I do hope that if you find the areas of parental concern of interest, you might find this short article of interest.
Question 1: How can I prove my child is dyscalculic?
My answer is that there is no proof – only a diagnosis which is not the same thing. The most fulsome diagnosis comes from an educational psychologist who specialises in dyscalculia. It will be expensive, and just having the diagnosis does not itself help the child, although some psychologists will give guidance and advice as to what to do. Most specialists in the field argue that a different approach to teaching maths is needed, and this is normally multi-sensory, and undertaken either on a one-to-one basis or in a very small group with others who have the same issues with maths.
Question 2: My child wants to go to university but they are asking for Grade 4 in GCSE maths. Can I get an excusal because my child is dyscalculic?
This depends on the course and the university. Where maths is an inherent part of the course an excusal from having a suitable maths GCSE is unlikely, but even then it can be worth contacting the Dyscalculia – Dyslexia – Interest Group at Loughborough University.
But where maths is required as a sign of a rounded education (rather than having anything to do with the course that the student wishes to study) then it is normally possible to argue that for dyscalculic students the requirement of a specific maths grade at GCSE should be set aside. That is certainly the clear implication of the Equality Act, which applies throughout the UK.
3: Does my child have to take GCSE maths twice a year, all the time she/he is at secondary school, even though because of dyscalculia my child will never pass?
It does seem to me illogical, but some argue that this is what the government in England requires. However, if that argument is being used then most certainly the Education Act also requires that tuition is given to the individual commensurate with her or his needs – which implies taking into account any special needs such a dyscalculia.
Whatever the regulations say, as far as I can tell (and do remember I am not teaching in a school) there are many schools that do not insist that a student has to resit maths twice a year, if they believe the child has the special need of dyscalculia.
That view that dyscalculia is present can come about because of the teacher’s observation of the teenager, it can be through using the Dyscalculia Centre’s diagnostic test or it can be through obtaining a report from an educational psychologist.
4: How does one cure dyscalculia?
Sadly, there is no cure for this as it is a genetic issue. However, there are ways of teaching maths which seem to have a much greater impact on dyscalculic pupils and students than the more common classroom teaching methods may do. These are discussed on our website, and we have several volumes of teacher materials on the site that may be of interest.
5: What are the signs of dyscalculia?
Most obviously a lack of understanding of maths commensurate with the individual’s age and intellectual ability in other subjects. However one needs always to distinguish between not being very good at maths (a normal human condition, exactly as being rather good at maths is a normal condition), and not being able to study maths because of dyscalculia.
This is what the various tests for dyscalculia aim to show: are we looking here at a person who simply can’t learn maths because of a genetic issue, or a person who perhaps had a difficult time at school and who missed a considerable amount of education. Because of the logical and sequential nature of maths, difficulties with maths can appear to be more pronounced than with other subjects although there is no suggestion of dyscalculia.
6: Are there other signs of dyscalculia as well as simply not being able to do maths?
Many people who suffer from dyscalculia also report that they have difficulty remembering sequences of events, map reading, learning journeys, telling the time and handling money.
Obviously as we have entered the digital age many of these skills have become less necessary. We don’t need to deal in change if using a credit or debit card. Most dyscalculics can relate to a digital clock much more easily than an analogue clock. Many mobile phones have access to a system that will guide one where one wants to go.
However sequences can still be a problem. Learning one’s phone number can be difficult, as can plotting out a series of events that one has to prepare for or undertake.
Tony Attwood C.Ed., B.A., M.Phil (Lond) F.Inst.A.M
Restarting dyscalculia work after a long break
It is more than likely that after a prolonged period of disruption to normal educational activity, possibly including a prolonged period away from school, many dyscalculic pupils and students will have slipped back in terms of their maths ability.
Informal evidence that I have gathered from both parents and teachers does suggest that dyscalculic pupils and students do tend to need regular practice activities to retain both the knowledge they have gained, and to enable them to hold onto the additional confidence that this knowledge brings.
Therefore, if you are working with a child or a teenager who has (or who you suspect might have) dyscalculia, it is worth being prepared to re-start working with the individual by going back a few stages and trying to find some work that the individual will be able to do comfortably.
If the young person does remember the previous work all well and good – the return to work will have started out on a positive note. If there is any sign of the individual struggling with work that has previously been covered, generally the best thing to do is to abandon the new work and go back to earlier work and revise what has been covered before.
Such an approach secures the previous knowledge, and rebuilds confidence.
I appreciate that this approach might seem somewhat defeatist, in that it is anticipating that past work might well have been forgotten, but engaging the individual in a way that builds his or her confidence can be more vital for individuals with dyscalulia than moving on to the next topic.
In short, it can be best to assume as little as possible, and explore what has been remembered, before going on any further.
Thus, my suggestion is that as we start to think about working with dyscalculic pupils and students again in the new school year, we should also start by thinking primarily in terms of confidence building, not in terms of teaching some more maths.
By doing this we can help to start the new term with a positive feel rather than a suggestion that the pupil or student should remember the work, because it was covered in the past. Also, we can avoid suggestions that we will “go over that again” or “see what you remember”.
Indeed if it is possible to avoid any overt suggestion that the individual might have forgotten something, so much the better. If instead, we simply assume that this has happened, then if the individual pupil or student has NOT forgotten anything then this is an opportunity for praise and reward. If the individual has forgotten a lot, then we can seamlessly return to earlier work and go through it again.
Of course, this is a general point which applies every autumn when dyscalculic pupils and students return to school after a long break, but this year it is doubly important because of the additional disruption to education that many pupils and students will have suffered.
And this is not just in terms of the length of time that individuals might have gone without support for their dyscalculia, but also because not having to study maths for a while might have been a blessed relief for some dyscalculic pupils and students. Going back to maths might be an unwelcome reminder of past failures.
So, the more chances pupils and students have of getting some work right, and showing what they have remembered, the better it is for their mental well-being.
If you are new to this site, and you would like some information, you will find a list of other articles that might be of help to you on our home page
Tony Attwood C.Ed., B.A., M.Phil (Lond), F.Inst.A.M.
Head of the Dyscalculia Centre
The sadness of not testing
Over a third of all the enquiries we receive in relation to the online Dyscalculia Test that is offered by the Dyscalculia Centre come from adults who have gone through their school years without having been screened for dyscalculia but who fear they might have it.
And many of these adults who write in or call us have given up all hope of ever understanding basic maths. Indeed in many cases their one thought after a lifetime of hiding away from any engagement with numbers is to wonder if they really are stupid or if there is within them a special reason why they alone can’t understand maths, as everyone else can.
Indeed a lot of those people who write in share with us their stories, and many of these are utterly heartbreaking. For they are stories of a life blighted by not being able to do something that almost everyone around them can do. Something that is central to everyday life. The basic manipulation of numbers.
These adults often ask to be tested for dyscalculia, not because they have any hope of being able to understand maths, but simply because they want to know: are they just stupid or is there something else going on?
However some are wondering about themselves, not just because of a life blighted by a lack of mathematical understanding, but because they are seeing the same issues in their child and, because of their own mathematical failings, they feel completely unable to help the child.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many adults with dyscalculia evolve strategies that have helped them cope with their dyscalculia, and as a result the dyscalculia might not be so readily revealed within the diagnostic test.
Which is another reason why diagnostic testing of pupils and students who might be suspected of being dyscalculic is so important.
Unfortunately, just as there are some people around who say they simply don’t believe in climate change (but produce no evidence to refute the findings of science) so there are a few who claim that dyscalculia doesn’t exist, despite the mountain of findings from experts such as Professor Brian Butterworth and Dr Stephen Chin. The gene that causes the problem has been located and the results are indisputable.
Once a person is tested for dyscalculia then it is possible to devise a programme of study which can give the individual the ability to understand the basics of maths and overcome their feeling of incompetence and stupidity (which is how many dyscalculics feel about maths).
Of course, if the testing is not undertaken until adulthood a lot of psychological damage may have been done by then, and that is very hard to undo. But even then some emotional relief may be brought to the individual.
However, in my view it is far better if the testing can be done earlier so that an alternative teaching approach can be utilised and the individual can come to learn at least enough maths to cope with everyday life.
I am, at this point, not especially wanting to push my own organisation’s diagnostic test for dyscalculia, but rather would say that if you have any doubt about the validity of the notion of dyscalculia, please have a look at the work of some of the experts on the subject and then set out your counter-arguments so that we can have a proper debate and understand your objections to the notion that this genetic malfunction exists.
On the other hand if you would like to know more about dyscalculia please do take a look at some of the articles on this site.
Tony Attwood C.Ed., B.A., M.Phil (Lond), F.Inst.A.M.
Head of the Dyscalculia Centre
New Special Needs Regulator
The government is investigating the idea of a new regulator of special educational needs
According to a report in CYP Now the government is considering launching a new regulatory unit for overseeing both special educational needs and mental health provision. These proposals were initially given a trial run in Manchester and there is the thought that they can be rolled out across England.
The initial proposal comes from Great Minds Together which was initially set up to teach children Life Skills as After School and Holiday Clubs across Manchester works with schools, families and local authorities. The Education Select Committee is considering the proposals.
The founders of the organisation have been asked to brief the select committee of MPs on their work and develop a policy paper for the committee.
It has been reported that within the trial over 150 families with children with special needs were engaged, and there was a total success rate in re-engagement of pupils with formal education as well as improvement in children’s engagement, learning and attainment.
The select committee has indicated that it wants an independent SEND watchdog to work independently of Ofsted and the Department for Education.
Ian Mearns, a member of the previous select committee, said that, “There is a crisis in the provision of SEND and SEMH across our fractured education system. The report in the last parliament from the education select committee raised a number of key conclusions and recommendations to address the current state of affairs; including the need for a focused, rigorous and regular inspection process for SEND and SEMH providers.
“I have met with Great Minds Together on a number of occasions and have read the ideas and proposals contained within their manifesto, including the framework for an inspection and resolution service.
"The manifesto is an excellent contribution to the policy development discourse, and I wholeheartedly support the principles which underpin their proposals. I have invited Great Minds to produce a policy paper for wider discussion, which will hopefully act as a catalyst for debate on this incredibly important issue.
Great Minds Together have proposed the ring-fencing of government funds for SEND and the abolition of council procurement processes for education and children’s services.
Under their plans, parents will be treated as experts and allowed to write their children’s education, health and care plans.
It is an interesting proposal for special needs which are genetically inherited, such as dyslexia and dyscalculia, wherein some parents are indeed very fast to spot the sort of problem that they or their parents had with spelling or mathematics.
A very significant proportion of the schools that use the Dyscalculia Centre’s on-line test, and the learning materials that are provided for those who are found to have dyscalculia, copy and pass on the support materials that are provided with the test results so that parents can help support their children and bring their maths up to the level whereby they can be taught in the mainstream classroom.
Details of materials for teachers are to be found here.
Details of materials for parents are provided here
You can read more about all our services, including the on-line test for dyscalculia on our website.
The signs of dyscalculia: an introductory guide
How to estimate if an individual has dyscalculia without administering a test
On this website we have two tests for dyscalculia – one is a very straightforward free test which can be done in a matter of minutes; the other is a much more comprehensive test that can take between 20 and 30 minutes, and which gives a much more detailed assessment of the individual’s specific difficulties. The results of this more detailed test are also accompanied by materials that can help the individual start to overcome problem areas that the test reveals.
But if you do not wish to involve the individual in testing, but instead wish to make a preliminary diagnosis from your own observations, you might care to look at the issues set out below.
None of these are going to give you definitive answers about whether an individual has dyscalculia, but they can be indicative of whether it is worth investigating further. If you observe a number of these factors you might well decide that a more analytical test is going to be helpful.
1: Estimation. At different stages in a child’s development, the ability to estimate how many beans, books, counters or pens there are in a group comes into play. This doesn’t mean knowing that there are 35 counters on the table, but rather being able to estimate “30” as opposed to “100” or “5”. A refusal to estimate, perhaps combined with signs of anxiety or simply being reliant on pure guesswork, at a stage when others are willing and able to make a reasoned guess, is a suggestive trait.
2: Mental arithmetic is normally very seriously impaired in dyscalculic people. Again it is not so much the right answer to a mental arithmetic question that one is always looking for, but a guess or estimate of an answer that is in the right area. A failure to grasp the general area of the answer can be an indicator of dyscalculia.
3: Young people with dyscalculia have a problem dealing with all numbers, so counting backwards can be a particular difficulty, and dyscalculics will often find that they can’t undertake this task when others who might be poor at maths but not dyscalculic can at least make a valiant attempt.
4: Timing. Dyscalculics can learn to perform mathematical functions such as working out division questions, but invariably will undertake these more slowly than pupils and students who are poor at maths, but not dyscalculic.
5: Forgetfulness. Because of the genetic issues that cause dyscalculia, it is common for dyscalculic students who have learned a mathematical process such as long multiplication, long division or indeed certain times tables, then to forget what they have learned in a very short space of time.
6: Telling the time both in a 12 hour clock and a 24 hour time table can be very difficult for dyscalculics, and they often have a much greater difficulty with time that their fellows of a same age.
7: Being able to describe directions to proceed on a walk that they know very well (while most fellow pupils or students can do this) is another indication that dyscalculia may well be present.
8. The concept of zero can cause problems for dyscalculics, as this is, in many regards, a wholly artificial concept. It is noteworthy that the Roman Republic and Roman Empire was wholly organised on a mathematical system that did not contain a zero.
If you notice a number of issues from the above list being present in a child it is certainly worth considering whether the child is dyscalculic, and then if you feel that is the case, proceeding to one of the tests for dyscalculia on our site.
There are details of our on line test which can be administered by teachers on this website while if you are a parent considering the situation relating to your son or daughter there is further information that you may find helpful here.
Is it possible to diagnose dyscalculia without the individual taking a screening test?
By Tony Attwood C.Ed., B.A., M.Phil (Lond), F.Inst.A.M.
Head of the Dyscalculia Centre
I believe that the answer to the question in the headline above is “only up to a point”. Without an individual doing a diagnostic test it is possible for a teacher or indeed parent to suspect that the child might be dyscalculic – especially if a range of symptoms associated with dyscalculia can be seen. But that is not the same as having a diagnosis.
And there is a secondary issue here – because suspecting that a child might have dyscalculia does not of itself help the child overcome the problem. What we need is to move from the suspicion that dyscalculia is present, across to an understanding of what should be done in terms of teaching the child maths.
What makes the issue more problematic is that it is quite possible than an individual child might also suffer from a related condition, such as ADHD, and the symptoms of one can mask the symptoms of the other.
It is, of course, more than likely that a child with dyscalculia will become frustrated by maths and describe the subject as boring, while blaming the teacher at the same time! And there is always the possibility that the child is quite simply not very good at maths – rather than suffering from a specific genetically inherited problem.
Now these differences can have a huge impact on the child – both in terms of work at school and life after school. Having dyscalculia means that the child simply doesn’t and won’t understand the issues raised in maths when taught in the normal way. Being “not very good at maths” means that with slower teaching, the child can gradually learn enough maths to be able to handle the sort of computations that arise in daily life.
A child who is not very good at maths will be able to learn how a timetable operates and how to play games that involves numbers. These activities may well be beyond the ability of the dyscalculic child, unless she or he has specific help.
What’s more, the problems that the dyscalculic child has can go beyond maths and can involve understanding the passing of time, telling the time (even with a digital clock), the properties of shapes, the notion of sequences, the concept of “zero” and so on.
Of course, in many ways it is possible get around these problems – but when they move into the issue of budgeting the family accounts as an adult the whole issue can get a lot more serious.
This is why it is important to discover early on if the child is simply poor at maths or possibly has dyscalculia. If it is the latter, then work should also be done with the child which considers issues beyond doing text book maths.
The Dyscalculia Centre offers a low-cost on-line test for dyscalculia. It is not in any way as definitive as a test administered by an educational psychologist, but it can be very helpful in guiding parents and teachers towards the areas of difficulties that the child is experiencing, and suggesting if dyscalculia is likely to be the cause of these problems.