Understanding Math Disability

Does your eight-year-old still count on her fingers? Is your fourth grader having a tough time with simple addition problems? Is math homework a daily battle with your middle schooler?

According to research conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, between 58 and 75 percent of school-aged students in the U.S. perform below proficiency levels in mathematics (1) (2). A variety of factors are contributing to this alarming statistic: cultural attitudes, low academic self-confidence, poor instructional methods, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders that affect learning across the board. However, up to 10% of students struggling with math have a specific learning disability known as dyscalculia. Children with this learning disorder have a difficult time making sense of numbers and math concepts.

Many more people have heard about dyslexia (a learning disability in reading) than about dyscalculia. While both dyscalculia and dyslexia are estimated to affect up to six percent of the general population, our understanding of the math disorder is lagging way behind that of dyslexia (3). Researchers have recently made great strides in identifying the factors involved in dyscalculia, but the field is young, and our scientific understanding is limited. Why is this?

Our cultural attitudes about math may have something to do with it. Prevalent attitudes in the United States emphasize the importance of verbal communication. Most educated people in this country can read and write well, while a much smaller subgroup excels in advanced mathematics. Some educators believe our culture tells us that it is socially acceptable to be bad at math, but not bad at reading. As a result of these pervasive cultural attitudes, Americans tend to feel a general discomfort with numbers (4). The implication is that math is naturally hard and some people are just not meant to excel at it.

This belief can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once a child believes math is inherently too difficult, she then spends less time studying or working to develop arithmetical skills, and the feelings of incompetency are reinforced. Research shows that an individual with low math confidence, regardless of actual ability, will perform worse on tests measuring mathematical performance (5).

For years, the assumption that struggling with math is the norm suggested that deficits were not necessarily indicative of a disorder. As a result, research over the past fifty years has heavily focused on disorders related to reading and verbal processing. At the same time, very little work has been done on understanding the neuropsychological processes behind mathematics disorder. In the next section, we aim to inform readers about dyscalculia, a learning disorder that is just beginning to be understood.

What is dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia (also called a “mathematics disorder” or “mathematical disability”) refers to a pattern of difficulties characterized by problems processing numerical information, learning arithmetic facts, and performing accurate or fluent calculations (6).

This specific learning disability is caused by a difference in brain function or brain structure, present from birth or an early age.

What causes dyscalculia?

Researchers believe that dyscalculia may be tied to a core deficit in an area of the brain responsible for “number sense.” Number sense refers to our ability to quickly understand, approximate and manipulate numerical quantities (7). Being able to quantify food, friends, enemies, and other useful items was crucial to human survival in our evolutionary past. Because of this evolutionary purpose, it is believed humans are born with a natural set of number sense abilities. While infants may not be able to articulate their understanding of mathematical concepts, studies have confirmed they do possess such skills. For example, when two-year-old children are asked to reach for one of two rows of candy set in front of them, they are able to ignore factors such as row length and reach for the row with the larger number of candies (8).

Other studies use brain-imaging techniques to understand the processes taking place when we estimate, add, or subtract numbers. These studies have identified a specific part of the brain that is activated during such tasks. Activation in this brain region, known as the intra-parietal sulcus (HIPS), increases as the arithmetic task presented gets more difficult. Dyscalculia is believed to be caused by differences in brain function or structure in this region. This system responsible for mathematical processing is quite different than the system of the brain responsible for language processing (8). Therefore, children with dyscalculia may not show processing deficits in areas beyond mathematics. It is important to note that dyscalculia is not a pervasive learning disorder. Affected children may excel in many areas, which may or may not include reading and writing.

At the same time, the brain is highly interconnected. No system of the brain could function without the support of many other brain circuits. Because of these connections, environmental and genetic factors affecting brain development are likely to act on multiple areas of the brain. Therefore, it is common for dyscalculia to co-occur with other learning difficulties such as dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and specific language impairment (9).

Given the limited research on this topic, there is no definite list of symptoms required for diagnosis. However, researchers have identified several consistent patterns that may alert parents to a potential disability (10).

Table 1: Age and Potential Warning Signs

Preschool or

Kindergarten

Elementary School

Middle School

Trouble learning to count (assigning objects in a group a number) Delay in counting/understanding basic counting principles Uses fingers to count instead of using more sophisticated strategies
Trouble recognizing number symbols (connection between “7” and word  seven) Counting on fingers for simple addition problems (e.g. 2+1=3) Trouble solving math problems that include words such as  greater than  and  less than
Struggles to connect a number to a real-life situation (“3” applies to any group that has three things in it—3 cookies, 3 cars, etc.) Difficulties learning/ memorizing simple arithmetic facts Difficulty remembering phone numbers and game scores
Cannot recognize patterns or sort items by size or shape Difficulty in understanding quantity (which is bigger, 7 or 9?) Trouble recognizing and using numbers/ symbols (+,-)

To be diagnosed as a specific learning disorder, difficulties must be present for at least six months despite interventions to target the deficit. The child’s skills must be below age level and interfering with his functioning in school and daily activities (6). Even if your child is not demonstrating the specific symptoms mentioned above, she may still be struggling. Talk to your child’s teacher to see if she is falling behind her peers in math. If you or your child’s teachers are concerned, an educational or neuropsychological evaluation may be necessary. The professional, such as a school psychologist or a clinical psychologist, will administer a battery of cognitive, academic, and neuropsychological tests that can provide a diagnosis and specific recommendations to help support your child.

Remember, many children have a tough time with math. If you believe low math confidence may be the cause of your child’s math struggles, your support may be just what your child needs to “become a math person.” If, however, your child has a learning disability in math, professional intervention will likely be necessary. As our cultural attitudes towards math are finally beginning to shift, more resources are being allocated to identifying and helping children experiencing difficulties with mathematics, regardless of the cause of those difficulties. If your child is struggling with math, figuring out the root cause of his challenges is the first step towards getting your child support and addressing the problem.

References

(1) Perie, M., Grigg, W.S., & Dion, G.S. (2005). The Nation’s Report Card: Mathematics 2005 (NCES 2006–453); U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

(2) U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2013 Mathematics and Reading Assessments.

(3) Geary, D. C. (2006) Dyscalculia at an early age: Characteristics and potential influence on socio-emotional development. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development; 2006:1-4.

(4) Wai, J. (2013). We Have the Grammar Police. Why Not the Math Police? The Creativity Post. Retrieved from http://www.creativitypost.com/education/we_have_the_grammar_police._why_not_the_math_police

(5) Kimball, M., & Smith, N. (2013). The myth of ‘I’m bad at math.’ The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/the-myth-of-im-bad-at-math/280914/

(6) American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

(7) Dehaene, S. (1997). The number sense: How the mind creates mathematics. New York: Oxford University Press.

(8) Dehaene, S., Molko, N., Cohen, L., & Wilson, A. J. (2004). Arithmetic and the brain. Current Opinion in Neurobiology,14(2), 218-224. doi:10.1016/j.conb.2004.03.008

(9) Butterworth, B. & Laurillard, D. (2010). Low numeracy and dyscalculia: identification and intervention. ZDM Mathematics Education, 42 (527 – 539).

(10) Butterworth, Brian. Dyscalculia Screener. Rep. London: NferNelson, 2003. Dyscalculie.com. Web. http://www.dyscalculie.com/dlbin/dyscalculia_screener_manual.pdf

Acknowledgments

This article was prepared with the invaluable help of Lindsay Rosen, a second year graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-­Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. Lindsay is passionate about understanding and improving the lives of individuals affected by various neurodevelopmental and psychological issues. Her ultimate goal is to work as a clinical psychologist and assist families through evaluation and treatment. Lindsay is currently interning at Growing Minds, LLC, where she helps Dr. Dashevsky gather research-­based literature on topics or clinical issues that arise in the course of Dr. Dashevsky’s work with children and families.

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