Supporting children with Dyscalculia
Updated: Jul 28
Headteacher at Abingdon House School, Rory Vokes-Dudgeon, explains how he thinks both parents and teachers can best support children with dyscalculia.
What is Dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia, like dyslexia, is in the family of specific learning difficulties, sometimes referred to as SpLD. As a term that is much more recent than its literacy counterpart, it unfortunately has much less research, advice and resources associated with it.
There is still no consensus as to how dyscalculia should be defined, with both The National Numeracy Strategy (DfES, 2001) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA, 2013) disagreeing on the finer aspects of the difficulty.
However, what they do agree on is that people with Dyscalculia can have absolutely no impairment in other areas but do have a significant impairment in basic Maths. In particular, people with Dyscalculia will struggle with:
Understanding numerical amounts
Understanding simple number concepts
Memorisation of arithmetic facts
Accurate and fluent calculation
How many people have Dyscalculia?
The British Dyslexia Association, which also researches Dyscalculia, believes it is likely to occur in 3%-6% of the population and is equally likely to affect females as males.
What can be done to support people with Dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia can present itself very differently in each individual. It is therefore really important to understand where each individual's difficulty lies. The following list outlines strategies which have been used in our setting to support many students with Dyscalculia. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to supporting students with Dyscalculia; it takes careful assessment and can require attempting a variety of different strategies to find out what is right for each person with dyscalculia.
Practical Maths: Use manipulatives and pictures
Students with dyscalculia will often struggle with subitisation (the ability to recognise an amount of objects as a number). This means that the value of any number can be a foreign concept for students with dyscalculia and they may find numbers and calculations using numbers very abstract.
If this is the case, the student may struggle with knowing which numbers are bigger or smaller and may find it difficult to know if an answer may or may not be correct, for instance why 34 + 5 could not be 29.
Something that can support children facing these difficulties is to make numbers more concrete. We do this by using manipulatives and pictures to represent the numbers. The first step in this method is to ask the students to use objects to create the calculations. The physical nature of moving blocks or objects supports them to know if a number is growing, shrinking, being shared, etc.
Research has also shown that if you use the real object that is contained in the question then children are more likely to engage more, understand more and retain more. For example, a sum with cars could be recreated using toy cars and, even better, money problems can be tackled by using real money.
Once using manipulatives has been mastered by the student, it is time to make the task more visual and introduce something that can be drawn on paper but still without using abstract numbers. Here students draw pictures, lines or dots to represent numbers and will count them in order to know the value of the number being represented.
The final step of this method is to implement the use of abstract numbers. However, the mistake that is often made is moving too quickly on to this abstract number stage. For someone with dyscalculia, they will need to practise both the pictorial alongside the number sums for a significant period of time and may continue to use the pictorial method permanently if that is what best supports them.
For more information on this method, I would recommend searching for the concrete, pictorial and abstract method used in Singapore Maths.
The most important thing to remember is not to move on from each stage too quickly and, when revisiting a topic after some time, you might need to return to the manipulative or pictorial stage before revising the abstract.
Reduce the use of working memory
Students with dyscalculia often have an impairment in remembering number facts, such as number bonds, times tables or the order of numbers.
These are all important parts of Maths that should be explicitly taught. However, when teaching other areas of mathematics, these can be barriers when learning new concepts due to the additional working memory load required.
Use of visual multiplication grids, number bonds or number lines can reduce the stress of trying to remember taught facts. It is important to remember that consistency between home and school is key here, both in terms of the type and amount of support that is being given. Becoming used to a new type of support can take some time and, although something might seem similar to an adult, it might seem completely different to the child with dyscalculia. As with everything within school, we recommend a good level of communication and consistency between home and school.
Avoid the “counting trap”
A term coined by dyscalculia specialist Ronit Bird, “the counting trap” is where children overuse the method of counting up and down in 1s to solve problems. Although this can lead to the correct answer on some occasions, this will often lead to students being uncertain as to whether an answer is correct, as counting takes so much time and effort that they can not connect the answer with the problem.
Instead, try and help children to avoid this by practising chunking and making bigger jumps, rather than relying on single units. Playing games and using resources that highlight the fact that numbers are made out of component chunks can be very useful. As with other concepts in Maths, a variety of games and activities will support understanding and retention.
Reduce Maths anxiety
Dyscalculia can often lead to Maths anxiety. Maths anxiety is not limited to children with dyscalculia but there is a significant co-occurrence between dyscalculia and Maths anxiety.
Early identification of Maths anxiety can mean that teachers and parents are better placed to support these students. There are strategies both in the classroom and at home that can be done to support Maths anxiety.
In the classroom
New teaching can evoke Maths anxiety and the increase of cognitive load can be a trigger of symptoms. It can therefore be supportive to break new teaching moments down into their smallest components so that your learners can continue to have small wins on their way to experience challenges.
Build up confidence with some standard definitions and ways of explaining new concepts that children can start to internalise and know by heart. Sentence starters are fantastic for this. Vocabulary knowledge is something that is often missed within Maths but for those who may have a strength with literacy but struggle with Maths, this can be an area where they find success and, as such, build confidence.
Provide lots of practice opportunities, particularly through working in pairs and groups, which enable children to feel supported as they progress. Open-ended questions can be used as a way to stretch those who excel in Maths but pitched correctly can also offer the opportunity for everyone to participate in paired or group work, which leads to students having more confidence to attempt questions independently.
Parents can sometimes expect too much of children at home after a day at school, and, whilst it is important that practice is done, make sure you are not pushing your child to do too much. Short periods across a week is better than a gruelling 45-minute session on a Sunday afternoon.
Don’t try to teach new things at home, especially if you are expecting your child to do most of the work on their own. Consistency of approach is key and you may find yourself teaching a different method that can confuse your child more and lead to added Maths anxiety.
Parents have a real opportunity to make Maths real – arguably even more than teachers do at school - when they are out and about in ordinary life doing the shopping, embarking on DIY jobs, or cooking in the kitchen. These times provide plenty of opportunities to have maths-based discussions. For example, you could help them to understand coin denominations when giving pocket money, or ask them what the time is and talk about how long it will be until tea time. You could also embark on real-life problem solving, for example by discussing, when setting the table, how, if each person has three pieces of cutlery, and there are five people eating, there will be 15 pieces of cutlery on the table altogether. Although, be aware, you don’t always have to ask them questions or give them activities to engage them in Maths in the outside world just recognising numbers and discussing what you are doing can
Playing games with children using dice or dominoes is a great way to increase children's confidence with using numbers. Specialist Ronit Bird states that a child should learn to recognize the number patterns on the dominoes and dice instead of counting the individual dots each time. Start by using dominoes and dice by themselves so your child feels comfortable with these objects. Next, find a game your child enjoys that uses these items.
Finally, being positive about numbers and Maths can go a long way to supporting dyscalculic children and children with Maths anxiety. Maths is a subject different from all the others where it has become socially accepted that people are “just bad at Maths” and it is commonplace to hear people say, “I hated Maths at school”. You even hear it on TV and in films. Although this might be true, as adults we have the responsibility not to share our own anxiety or feelings towards Maths, as in any other subject. Children pick up on these things remarkably quickly and such concepts become normalised. We must therefore give our children the best chance to succeed in Maths by being Maths-positive.
Rory Vokes-Dudgeon is Headteacher at Abingdon House School. He has taught Maths to all academic levels during his career. He has worked in specialist education schools for over 10 years and has guest lectured on how to teach Maths to students with SEN at King’s College London.
Abingdon House School is a specialist Prep and Senior School for children aged 5-19 years. Abingdon House School is part of Cavendish Education, a small family of schools specialising in supporting students with learning differences.
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