“Why is math so hard?” he asked.
When my son was in second grade, math was a big deal.
His class practiced timed tests every day (the same way I did 30 years earlier) as a way to increase math fluency.
The goal was simple – complete 100 basic, single digit equations in addition in five minutes. When you mastered that task, then the time decreased to three minutes. When you achieved that level of proficiency, you started all over with subtraction. Then multiplication. Then division.
(Total side note: I swear these tests increased and contributed to my math anxiety for years.)
Although we can argue all day long about the importance of these types of exercises for math fluency, please know, my son’s experience with them did not end when the timer went off.
No, the rule was that a student had to stay, Monday – Thursday, and finish the test before he or she could head out to recess. For most children, this meant an extra few minutes and they were out on the playground. For my son, it meant no recess. Four days out of five a week. For the entire school year.
Try as he may, he never got past 73 out of 100 basic addition problems – not just in the timed portion, but with his entire 17 minutes recess added. He just couldn’t master the recall necessary for all 100 problems.
At first, we blamed it on switching school districts. He went from a more progressive, conceptual based math program in first and the beginning of second grade to a more traditional, fluency based program mid-way through.
But, as time went on, it became clear that although my son was exceptionally gifted in many ways, the way he processed basic math was very, very different from the norm.
A year later, we discovered his learning differences included dyscalculia.
What Is Dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability in math. Kids with dyscalculia may have difficulty understanding number-related concepts or using symbols or functions needed for success in mathematics.
Experts believe dyscalculia is just as common as dyslexia, but a lot less is known or understood about it. It can, and often does, co-occur with other learning differences including dyslexia, ADHD and executive function deficits.
Dyscalculia often looks different at different ages. Here are some of the signs and symptoms, by age group, that may indicate this learning difference:
- Has trouble learning to count and may skip over numbers long after other children remember numbers in the right order.
- Struggles to recognize patterns (i.e. smallest to largest or tallest to shortest).
- Has trouble recognizing and retaining numbers (knowing that “4” means four).
- Difficulty with the concept of counting. For example, when asked for a specific number of blocks, the child will give you an armful, rather than counting them out.
- Has difficulty learning and recalling basic math facts, such as 2 + 4 = 6.
- May still use fingers to count instead of using more advanced strategies, like mental math.
- Struggles to identify +, ‒ and other signs
- Struggles with concepts related to math, such as greater than and less than.
- Has continued difficulty with place value.
- Has trouble with fractions and with measuring things (i.e. when baking, etc.)
- Struggles to keep score in games.
- Has trouble writing numerals clearly or putting them in the correct column.
- Difficulty in applying math concepts to money (i.e. estimating the totals, making exact change and tipping).
- Difficulties with interpreting graphs or charts.
- Continued difficulty measuring things like ingredients in basic recipes.
- Has trouble applying different approaches to the same math problem.
Homeschooling A Child With Dyscalculia: Why Is Math So Hard?
Math freaks out a lot of homeschooling moms. It is probably one of the number one questions I hear at homeschool conferences and conventions.
How will I teach math?
Add dyscalculia to the mix and it can be downright daunting.
The good news is that homeschooling a child with dyscalculia can be exactly the right approach to assist and accommodate your child’s needs.
Just take a look at the accommodations, typically recommended for children with specific learning disabilities in math –
Extra time on tests.
Provide frequent checks during classwork. It is frustrating for a student to finish an entire worksheet, only to be told that every answer is wrong and he’ll need to do it again. Instead, teachers should check after every few problems. This way, a child can learn from mistakes and feel bolstered by a sense of improvement.
List the steps for multi-step problems and algorithms. Post clearly numbered step-by-step instructions on the board, or give your student a copy she can keep at her desk.
Keep sample problems on the board.
Give students individual dry-erase boards to use at their desks.With this tool, students can complete one step of a problem at a time, erasing any mistakes they may make.
Use plenty of brightly colored, uncluttered reference charts and diagrams. Children with dyscalculia benefit from visual representations of math problems.
Whenever possible, allow calculator use.
Reduce the number of assigned problems. Assigning 10 problems, rather than a full page, is enough to assess a student’s understanding.
Play math games.
All of these accommodations are easily provided in a home environment. Moreover, my child is more confident in using them because he is not comparing himself to others. He never has to feel any shame in accessing the accommodations he needs to be successful.
We have also seen a significant improvement in his overall comfort level with math lessons as we have incorporated into online learning to his math education.
Most importantly, homeschooling has allowed my son to complete his math education in a way that doesn’t punish him for his differences. We spend substantially more time focused on his areas of strength rather than drilling him in his areas of struggle.
I am grateful for the opportunity to help him learn in a way that works best for his needs.
This matters more to me than any timed test anyway!