The overlooked challenge of dyscalculia – An insight for Special Education Teachers and RTI Teams

Dyscalculia, often overshadowed by its more recognised counterpart, dyslexia, deserves our urgent attention. Dyscalculia isn’t just about the occasional difficulty with numbers but a persistent and specific difficulty with arithmetic.

The overlooked challenge of dyscalculia – An insight for Special Education Teachers and RTI Teams

Dyscalculia, often overshadowed by its more recognised counterpart, dyslexia, deserves our urgent attention. Dyscalculia isn’t just about the occasional difficulty with numbers but a persistent and specific difficulty with arithmetic.

In a society heavily reliant on data and numerical literacy, tasks we consider routines, such as giving directions, reading a clock, or following a recipe, can evoke considerable anxiety for those grappling with dyscalculia.

What is dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a specific and persistent difficulty with arithmetic and in understanding and applying numbers. It’s a complex math difficulty that can lead to various challenges. Dyscalculia can occur singly but often co-occurs with other specific learning difficulties and medical conditions.

The impact of dyscalculia has a profound effect on a child’s social, emotional and mental health and is often referred to as lacking a number sense or being ‘numb to numbers’.

Responding to dyscalculia

As a society, we have a lot of work to do to raise awareness of dyscalculia. Research in the area is some 20 years behind dyslexia, and the slow uptake of addressing dyscalculia may lie in the underlying assumption and belief that all children with dyscalculia have similar maths difficulties and, therefore, similar developmental capacities.

The evidence suggests the opposite.

What I have found in my experience:

In my work assessing children at risk of dyscalculia, I witness overwhelming and complex struggles in math. I usually observe at least 5 to 6 children in a classroom receiving differentiated and special support, mainly under the guidance of the class teacher and supported by a n interventionist.

Considerable work goes into preparing this differentiated support and planning to ensure that the environment and experience are inclusive, with some children receiving 60 minutes of one-to-one intervention a day and others in much greater ratios with much shorter times. With such intensive efforts within the classroom, I always question why some children’s gaps in math learning have widened and why so many children find it difficult to keep up with the curriculum.

I also question why I observe a significant difficulty in children’s foundational number development.

Some examples of observations:

This is a small sample of the typical multifaceted challenges I observe:

  • Over-reliance on using fingers rather than mental arithmetic strategies. An 11-year-old when asked within a task, “What is 42 add 12”. Pulled out their fingers, and thought hard and the response was, “I wish I had more fingers to count from”.
  • A 12-year-old had difficulty directing me to the playground using the directional vocabulary of left and right.
  • A confident 9-year-old when asked to write 21, wrote 201.
  • A young girl was quick to tell me how she hoped that she would be able to work on the same table as children who completed their math more quickly than her.
  • A nine-year-old struggling with the horizontal addition of two-tens to a two-digit number.

My sincere hopes in writing this article

In writing this article, I aim to raise awareness and highlight the huge importance of recognising this specific math learning difficulty and to share how widespread it actually is by highlighting the evidence of the many listening posts that my team and I design. I hope through this, we can understand the struggles of children and adults who have been missed out in the identification of this specific and persistent math difficulty – Dyscalculia.

We simply can’t ignore significant math difficulties, as ignoring the identification and targeted support of dyscalculia will reverberate for generations to come.

Considering the UK’s dyscalculia prevalence rate of 5-6% and a population of 67.62 million as of January 2023, it’s a fact that just over 4 million individuals grapple with this severe math difficulty, less than the combined population of

six UK cities chosen at random and described below.

Cumulative Total
Glasgow 591,620 591,620
Belfast 274,770 866,390
Manchester 395,515 1,261,905
Sheffield 685,368 1,947,273
Swansea 300,352 2,247,625
Reading 318,014 2,565,639

Five reasons why addressing dyscalculia is so vitally important

  1. Neuroscience provides evidence that children’s brains are malleable during their formative years, making it the prime time to address learning difficulties. The harrowing comments from adults who have missed this identification while at school give us the evidence that we will leave behind a community of individuals who will face considerable challenges in their day-to-day lives, with many left feeling depressed, isolated and unable to contribute effectively to society and lead quality lives.
  1. Living in a data-driven world, it’s unacceptable that 4 million individuals in the UK, experience the profound struggle of navigating everyday life, from preparing food, managing finances, understanding the impact of rising interest rates or working out which of the two identical items in a supermarket will give better value for money.
  2. Mathematics skills enable analytical thinking, reasoning and problem-solving. Without them, not being able to read numbers or work out halves and doubles, many will experience severe barriers to their dream career path.
  3. Dyscalculia can lead to feelings of isolation and limited friendship opportunities at school. While some playground friendships may develop genuinely and others with empathy and understanding, many with little compassion. Children intuitively know that they’re being excluded from friendship groups. Consistently being faced with isolation can lead to outbursts at home and withheld emotions caused by coping with anxiety throughout the day.
  4. With the research available today, we know that math difficulties lie on a spectrum, and children who are grouped on the same table working on similar tasks are perhaps not performing as quickly as we desire, as their individual developmental capacities and individual differences have not been accounted for.

Children’s differences in their math struggles are greater than their similarities, as each child has a unique nervous system, a uniquely developing mind with unique experiences and, for some, unique biological conditions.Just as children go through individual development stages, number development similarly has individual developmental stages.

Would it not be great, therefore, that we could target children at their different stages and developmental levels and, through this, enhance their number development?

Conclusions and the way ahead:

There are many tools available for the early identification of dyscalculia that can pave the way to constructing a holistic intervention that develops capacities. One size does not fit all, as children’s cognitive, emotional and biological differences present a range of math behaviours.

A preventative approach is far more desirable than firefighting.

Observations can begin at nursery school to see how a child relates to the world and the people around them and whether or not they are meeting their early number developmental milestones. Children don’t need a label or diagnosis, they require a developmental approach to an intervention to support their individual developmental needs. Children should be seen for their developmental capabilities and individual differences.

It is my true hope that this article has provided you with information you may not have been aware of.

I look forward to your comments on how we can share our experience and expertise collectively to support the many children with complex math difficulties.

No child with dyscalculia should ever go unnoticed!

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:

Previous Post
Math Challenges in 7-11 Year-Olds