Navigating the Complex And Invisible Landscape of Dyscalculia

Within the intricate tapestry of educational challenges, few hurdles are as subtle and challenging as dyscalculia. Distressingly, even at the tender age of 6, learners who express negative attitudes towards mathematics might hear adults respond with, “It doesn’t matter, look where I am today and I was never good at math either.”

Should it be acceptable to have 4 Million people desperately seeking assistance due to an outbreak that impairs cognitive abilities and hampers the grasp of basic numbers? 

Mathematics illiteracy is presently causing and will persist in significantly hindering both present and future generations. In the UK, over 4 million individuals are at risk of dyscalculia, a complex math difficulty. This complex difficulty often hides in plain sight on the faces of children, rich and poor, who muster the strength to memorise number facts but cannot carry out simple tasks of giving the right amount of coins when purchasing sweets without the fear that they have not been short-changed. The hurdles, the humiliation and the hurt are like a silent storm, brewing beneath the surface and threatening to wreak havoc if not addressed with the urgency it demands and the windows of opportunity close if this is not addressed or recognised early in the child’s formative years.  

A paradigm shift in our educational approach is needed, from traditional teaching, focused on transmitting information to adopting a constructivist method. This change is essential in a society heavily influenced by technology and data culture. 

Considering the statistics highlighted in my article The Overlooked Challenge of Dyscalculia, there is a significant gap in mathematical skills across the country, affecting both affluent and underprivileged individuals alike.

The silent cries for help

Imagine a society where individuals face barriers to financial literacy, employment opportunities and even basic daily tasks that involve numerical understanding. This is the society we inadvertently foster if we neglect the early signs and symptoms of Dyscalculia. 

The cries for help are not always vocal; they manifest in the frustration of a student unable to grasp seemingly simple mathematical concepts, in the anxiety of a young mind confronted by numbers and in the dwindling self-esteem of those who feel left behind.

Some of the multitude of tasks that involve numerical understanding:

  1. Shopping: Calculating costs, comparing prices, and managing a budget are essential for making informed choices while shopping.
  2. Cooking: Following recipes involves measuring ingredients, adjusting quantities and understanding cooking times – all of which require numerical skills.
  3. Time Management: Planning daily schedules, coordinating activities and meeting deadlines all involve interpreting and manipulating time, which is inherently numerical.
  4. Finances: Balancing a bank statement, paying bills and managing personal finances necessitate a strong grasp of numerical concepts and financial literacy.
  5. Transportation: When using public transportation, numerical skills are required to figure out bus schedules, calculate travel costs, and determine optimal routes.
  6. Home Maintenance: Whether measuring furniture, calculating paint or material quantities for DIY projects, or understanding utility bills, home maintenance often involves numerical calculations.
  7. Health Monitoring: Tracking medication dosages, interpreting nutritional labels, and understanding health metrics (e.g., BMI, blood pressure) involve numerical components.
  8. Technology Usage: From setting up devices to managing digital applications, using technology effectively often requires numerical competence.

These everyday tasks underscore the pervasive nature of numerical understanding in various aspects of life. When individuals face barriers to these fundamental activities due to challenges related to dyscalculia, it profoundly impacts their ability to lead independent and fulfilling lives.

What Can Be Done To Change The Future For Those Affected By Dyscalculia?

Architects of prevention or fire-fighters?

As SENCo’s, we are often thrust into the role of firefighters, extinguishing the flames of academic struggle after they have already taken hold. We find ourselves in a perpetual cycle of reactionary measures, attempting to remediate rather than prevent but what if we could bring a shift in understanding?  

When dyscalculia is identified only after it has taken root, we are left with the challenge of untangling a complex web of cognitive and emotional barriers. The cost of firefighting is not merely measured in resources but also in the precious time that could have been invested in proactive, preventative measures.  The burden placed on the students, their families, and our educational system is immense, and the results are often a mosaic of solutions rather than a comprehensive strategy.

Prevention Begins With Understanding 

We can equip ourselves with a neuroformative language, a lens through which we view and address learning difficulties. Neuroformative language transcends the traditional deficit model, recognising that neurological differences are not deficits but variations in the human experience. When we adopt a neuroformative approach, we see dyscalculia not as a deficiency to be fixed but as a unique cognitive profile with strengths and challenges. This perspective empowers us to identify and nurture the strengths of individuals with dyscalculia while providing targeted support for their challenges.

By incorporating neuroformative language into our educational discourse, we create an environment where students feel seen and understood.  This proactive shift in mindset lays the foundation for prevention, breaking the fire-fighting cycle by addressing learning differences before they escalate into insurmountable challenges.

Early Intervention: The Beacon of Prevention

Prevention, in the context of dyscalculia, hinges on early intervention. As SENCo’s, we are the first responders in this critical phase. It involves vigilant observation, a keen eye for subtle indicators and a commitment to addressing learning differences at the earliest signs. Early intervention requires collaboration, communication and a holistic approach. Regular assessments, tailored interventions and a supportive learning environment are key components of prevention. 

By identifying and addressing difficulties in the early stages, we reduce the challenges of dyscalculia becoming a significant problem.

Building a Society Resilient to Dyscalculia – A Moral Imperative

Prevention is not a solitary endeavour; it is a collective responsibility that extends beyond the confines of our classrooms. We can advocate for awareness, understanding and resources at institutional and societal levels and in doing so, we will build a society resilient to the challenges posed by dyscalculia.

In Conclusion 

The path forward is clear. The choice between prevention and fire-fighting is not just a professional decision; it is a moral imperative. Dyscalculia, if left unaddressed, casts a long shadow over the future of individuals and society. 

As SENCo’s and inclusion leaders, we can be the architects of prevention, the advocates of early intervention and the champions of a society that thrives on inclusivity, understanding and support. Together, let us rewrite the narrative for our students, ensuring that their journey through education is marked not by the shadows of unaddressed challenges but by the light of proactive care and empowerment. Through workshops, seminars and outreach programs, we can disseminate knowledge about dyscalculia and foster a culture of inclusivity and support. 

By collaborating with specialists, parents and policymakers, we can create a unified front against the silent storm and ensure that no child faces the struggles of dyscalculia alone.


I am Karima Esmail, and I actively engage in raising awareness of dyscalculia, helping SENCOs and teachers reframe their approach to math challenges.  I have 15 years of experience as a senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire. More recently, I undertook research at University College London, which inspired the creation of Puffin Math for the deaf and hard-of-hearing which now dynamo provides access to the National Curriculum using British Sign Language. Puffin Math was ‘Highly Commended’ at BETT 2022.

I am the co-author of numerous dyscalculia assessments and interventions:

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