Dyscalculia in Children: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

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Dyscalculia in children is characterized by a math learning disability that can affect their ability to perform mathematical calculations and understand or learn arithmetic (1). Dyscalculia can be developmental (present at birth) or acquired (occurring later in life, such as after a brain injury).

Children with dyscalculia may face several challenges on the academic and personal front because they may have significantly lower academic skills than their peers (2) (3). It may lead to issues with self-confidence and self-esteem.

Read this post to learn about the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options for children with dyscalculia.

Causes Of Dyscalculia In Children

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V), as stated by the American Psychiatric Association, dyscalculia is referred to difficulties with basic mathematical concepts, facts, and calculations (2). Some children with dyscalculia cannot grasp basic number concepts and work hard to memorize them, but they miss the logic behind them.

According to UNESCO, the exact causes for dyscalculia are unknown and vary from child to child. However, some potential risk factors of dyscalculia in children are (4) (5)

  1. Genetics: Studies have found that a child with dyscalculia is more likely to have a parent or sibling with the same mathematical issue. Some genetic disorders that have been observed in patients with dyscalculia include Turner’s syndrome, Velocardiofacial syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, and Williams’s syndrome.
  1. Brain development: Brain imaging studies have shown some differences between people with and without dyscalculia. Brain impairment in certain areas (i.e., specific parts of the parietal lobe), responsible for processing numerical information due to various genetic and developmental disorders (such as Turner’s syndrome), can also cause developmental dyscalculia in children.
  1. Environmental factors: Certain environmental factors have been linked to dyscalculia in children, including maternal alcohol consumption (fetal alcohol syndrome), premature birth, and low birth weight, as these conditions may induce delayed brain development.
  1. Brain injury: Sometimes, a child may also develop a condition called ‘acquired dyscalculia’ due to an injury to certain parts of the brain.
  1. External factors: Poor teaching, low socioeconomic status, and behavioral attention problems or domain-general cognitive deficits may also cause secondary developmental dyscalculia in children (6).

Symptoms Of Dyscalculia In Children

The signs and symptoms of dyscalculia in children may vary from person to person and age.

In preschool children (1) (3):

  • Delayed learning to count
  • Cannot memorize simple numbers
  • Struggle to relate mathematical symbols (5) to their corresponding words (five)
  • Have trouble identifying patterns and arranging things in order
  • Relies on visual aids, such as counting with fingers, long after others have stopped using this method

In primary school children (1) (3):

  • Have trouble remembering and learning basic math functions, such as addition and subtraction, time tables, and other topics
  • Counting with fingers instead of using advanced skills (such as mental math)
  • Mathematical signs and symbols are not well understood
  • Struggle with math homework assignments and tests
  • Have difficulty keeping at grade-level in math
  • Have difficulty keeping track of game scores and memorizing digits, such as phone numbers and zip codes
  • Unable to tell time on an analog clock
  • Have trouble anticipating how much something will cost or how long a task will take
  • Avoid circumstances that demand understanding numbers, such as playing math games
  • Struggles to remember directions and to tell right from left

In secondary school children  (1):

  • Struggles with visual-spatial concepts, such as graphs and charts
  • Have difficulty figuring various ways to solve the same mathematical problem, such as adding the length and breadth of a rectangle and doubling the result to find the perimeter
  • Struggles with reasoning methods and multi-step mathematical approaches
  • Have difficulty assessing speed, distance, and directions, as well as measuring goods, such as ingredients
  • Have difficulty with money matters
  • Avoid answering math-related questions during everyday interactions

Problems Associated With Dyscalculia In Children

Dyscalculia often coexists with other disabilities, including (4) (7):

  1. Dyslexia: Studies show that about 43–65% of children with dyscalculia (math disabilities) are often diagnosed with dyslexia (learning disability).
  1. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Most children with dyscalculia are also diagnosed with ADHD. However, these children may have the inability to process numeric language as a characteristic of ADHD. Therefore, once ADHD symptoms are under control, it is advised to reassess a child’s mathematical skills.
  1. Math anxiety: Some children may have both math anxiety and dyscalculia. Unlike dyscalculia, math anxiety is a feeling pressured to perform well, leading to poor math skills.
  1. Genetic disorders: Genetic disorders, including Turner’s syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and Gerstmann’s syndrome, have also been associated with dyscalculia in children.
  1. Mental illness: About 30-35% of children with learning disabilities have been found to have a mental illness.
  1. Accompanying social and emotional problems: Children with dyscalculia frequently experience severe emotional distress due to low academic performance; this can lead to a negative mindset toward mathematical assignments and can develop math anxiety and school phobia.
  1. Cognitive deficits: Brain impairment in children with dyscalculia can lead to a pattern of cognitive degeneration, which typically presents as skills impairments, such as lack of focus, impaired working memory, inability to multitask, delayed language development, and slow visual-spatial processing.
  1. Psychosomatic complaints: Sometimes, a child with dyscalculia may also complain of abdominal pain or headache when a math test is scheduled, or math homework is due.

Diagnosis Of Dyscalculia In Children

There is no specific test for diagnosing dyscalculia in children, and it is based on a child’s difficulty in mathematics. If you suspect your child to have dyscalculia, consult with your child’s teachers and medical professionals to evaluate your child.

In general, the diagnosis of dyscalculia in children mainly include (5):

  • Identifying difficulty in mathematics that affects academic or everyday life,
  • Ruling out the other factors, such as ADHD, anxiety disorders, and other mental illnesses, that could be responsible for the difficulty

A professional or a medical specialist will conduct a detailed examination for the diagnosis of dyscalculia in children, which can include (8):

  1. Clinical examination: It consists of a standardized intelligence test and a physical examination, including a neurological examination and visual and hearing testing to rule out these impairments and other problems that can hinder mathematical ability.
  1. Detailed history: A thorough history, including personal, familial, and scholastic developmental history, can help evaluate the underlying cause of dyscalculia in children.
  1. Psychological assessment: It considers comorbid mental diseases, psychosocial stress factors, and low family socioeconomic levels. The assessment may include the systemic documentation of the impact of performance deficiencies on mental and social development, school integration, and social involvement (psychosocial integration).
  1. Psychometric testing: Several psychometric tests of mathematical performance are available to evaluate the methodological quality (basic arithmetic operations, numerical and quantitative processing, word problems, etc.) to perform mathematical tasks. Some of the most recommended tests are:
  • CODY math test
  • Test of basic mathematical competencies at the beginning of schooling (MBK 1+)
  • Bamberg Dyscalculia Diagnostic Test (BADYS) 1–4+ (R)
  • DEMAT German mathematics test
  • Eggenberg Calculation Test (ERT)
  • Heidelberg Arithmetic Test (HRT) 1-4
  • Bielefeld Arithmetic Test (BIRTE)
  • Test of numerical calculating skills from kindergarten to the third grade (TEDI-MATH)
  • Competence Assessment in Kindergarten and School (KEKS)
  • Diagnostic Inventory for Arithmetic Skills in Primary School (DIRG)
  • Mathematical and Arithmetical Concepts in First-Graders—Diagnosis (MARKO-D1+)

Treatment For Dyscalculia In Children

The treatment for children with dyscalculia is difficult. It depends on a child’s cognitive functional profile and severity of signs and symptoms (7).

  1. Specialized personnel, including learning specialists, educational psychologists, or neuropsychologists, will devise a treatment plan for children with dyscalculia (8).
  1. The methods include specially designed teaching plans (Dortmund number concept training, Dybuster Calcularis, etc.) (8), arithmetic learning games, categorization of subject matter, use of indicators in strategy-learning, small, interactive groups, and repeated practicing of mathematics tasks, especially for multi-digit calculations (7).
  1. Preschool-aged children with dyscalculia should start receiving supportive treatment at the earliest to positively impact subsequent mathematical competence and academic performance (8).
  1. If significant psychopathological signs, such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD, are present, the treatment may also include drugs and psychotherapy (7).
  1. Treatment should be continued as long as the interdisciplinary team caring for the child (such as therapist, teacher, and physician) considers it is appropriate and necessary (8).

Strategies To Help A Child With Dyscalculia

Given below are some methods which you can try to help your child with dyscalculia:

  1. Support academically: Children with dyscalculia require additional support when performing mathematical tasks, doing homework, and taking tests. Using a calculator, extra courses, alarms, phone reminders to keep track of time, teacher’s notes, and other helpful tools and accommodations can assist you and your child in completing these tasks (9).
  1. Address anxiety: Most children with dyscalculia often feel distressed and have serious anxiety when performing mathematical tasks, known as “math anxiety.” According to Dr. Meredyth Kravitz, a clinical neuropsychologist, “One of the keys to helping kids with dyscalculia is teaching them anxiety management strategies.”  Sports, including football, reading books, playing board games, and other activities (cooking and baking) could help and is a fun way to deal with math anxiety at home (10).
  1. Support self-esteem: Dyscalculia can significantly influence daily activities and lead to self-consciousness and avoidance in children. Supporting them academically and emotionally can help them gain self-confidence and gain a better understanding of their disease. Some methods may include acknowledging and appreciating their efforts, assisting them in identifying their abilities, etc (9).
  1. Working with school: Teachers are an excellent source of information and can also assist in dealing with a child with dyscalculia. You can ask your child’s teacher if there are any classroom strategies which you may use at home (10).

Children with dyscalculia have trouble grasping basic numerical ideas and work hard to memorize them, but they often miss the reasoning behind them. Genetic factors ( family history or a genetic illness), brain damage in areas of the brain related to numerical abilities, premature birth, and other factors can contribute to dyscalculia in children. There are no specific testing or imaging techniques for diagnosing dyscalculia in children, and the diagnosis is based on determining the difficulty performing math tasks. Special attention at home and school could help them improve their math skills.

Key Pointers

  • Dyscalculia can be due to genetic reasons, brain damage, or developmental or environmental issues in children.
  • Failure to memorize simple numbers, issues with simple calculations, trouble identifying patterns, and inability to identify mathematical symbols are signs of dyscalculia in children.
  • Dyscalculia and associated learning problems should be diagnosed and managed with special attention and learning programs.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
  1. How to Spot Dyscalculia.
    https://childmind.org/article/how-to-spot-dyscalculia/
  2. Cárdenas SY Silva-Pereyra J et al. Arithmetic processing in children with dyscalculia: an event-related potential study.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7847199/
  3. Kessler E. Dyscalculia: An Overview.
    https://www.smartkidswithld.org/first-steps/what-are-learning-disabilities/dyscalculia-an-overview/
  4. About Dyscalculia.
    https://mgiep.unesco.org/article/about-dyscalculia
  5. Wilson AJ. Dyscalculia Primer and Resource Guide.
    https://www.oecd.org/education/ceri/dyscalculiaprimerandresourceguide.htm
  6. Price GR Ansari D. Dyscalculia: Characteristics Causes and Treatments.
    https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1112&context=numeracy
  7. Kaufmann L von Aster M. The diagnosis and management of dyscalculia.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3514770/
  8. Haberstroh S Schulte-Körne G. The Diagnosis and Treatment of Dyscalculia.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6440373/
  9. Jacobson R. How to Help Kids With Dyscalculia.
    https://childmind.org/article/how-to-help-kids-dyscalculia/
  10. How to help your child with math.
    https://www.understood.org/articles/en/how-to-help-your-child-with-math
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Dr. Arva M Bhavnagarwala

(MBBS, DNB)
Dr. Arva Bhavnagarwala has completed her post-graduation from Masina Hospital in Mumbai. She has worked at Jaslok Hospital and Research Center as a Clinical Associate. Currently, she practices Pediatrics at her private clinic in South Mumbai and is attached to Masina Hospital as a consultant pediatrician. Dr. Bhavnagarwala is a National Advisory Board Member of Indian Pediatrics, the official publication... more

Reshmi Das

Reshmi Das has over three years of experience as a clinical coordinator, medical content writer and medical conference coordinator. Her continuous interest in medical journals and writing makes her write well-researched articles for MomJunction. She writes health and wellness articles for children and pregnant and lactating women. Reshmi has completed her Master’s degree in Biotechnology. She is currently pursuing an Executive... more