Beyond math: The oft-missed diagnosis that can cause lifelong struggles for students

While the prevalence rate of dyscalculia is the same as dyslexia, dyscalculia is proportionately dramatically underidentified.
Sandra Elliott
Sandra Elliott
Sandra T. Elliott, Ph.D., has served as a special education teacher, a five-time principal and a district-level administrator. In 2023, Elliott led the team to develop and release the TouchMath dyscalculia screener that is easy to administer and available at no cost in order to address an unmet need in the U.S. for easy identification and intervention for this underdiagnosed learning disability.

In the pursuit of academic and career success, mastering mathematics is universally recognized as crucial. Yet, for students facing the challenges of undiagnosed dyscalculia, the journey can be difficult.

My decades of experience researching the math learning disability, dyscalculia, leads me to believe that more awareness, diagnosis and intervention are key to unlocking our students’ potential in math.

What is dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a neurodevelopmental disorder that leads to persistent difficulties in acquiring number-related skills. Research says that 5–7 percent of students worldwide have dyscalculia. While the prevalence rate of dyscalculia is the same as dyslexia, dyscalculia is proportionately dramatically underidentified.

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Individuals with dyscalculia can experience difficulty with critical skills, such as:

  • Memorizing math facts.
  • Remembering the steps to solve a problem or a sequence of numbers.
  • Estimating quantities.
  • Performing mental math.
  • Accurately judging magnitude, time and speed.

When undiagnosed and untreated, these struggles persist into adulthood, impacting careers and causing day-to-day frustrations.

Early screening and intervention work

We know from research that identifying dyscalculia is critical to helping students get the support they need for math success. Here’s how to recognize those signs in students of every grade band.

Common signs of dyscalculia in elementary, middle, and high school:

  • Elementary school: You may see students having difficulty developing numbers and quantity, problems understanding math operations, and/or using their fingers when counting.
  • Middle school: You may notice students are unable to memorize math facts, have trouble remembering math concepts, or have trouble performing mental math.
  • High school: You may notice students struggling when working with money or counting change; using a map for directions; or estimating time, volume, or distance as well as traditional math content.

By screening for dyscalculia, educators can “shortlist” students who might need further evaluation to determine if they qualify for a diagnosis—and deliver evidence-based interventions, including (but not limited to):

  • Using multisensory methods of instruction and manipulatives.
  • Offering additional practice through game-based formats.
  • Providing extra time for students to solve problems.
  • Using Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) to facilitate mathematical mastery.

Early screening and intervention provide educators with the data they need to give a student a clear roadmap for future instruction and support.

As an education community, we also need to go a step further than merely raising awareness of dyscalculia. We must advocate for the large segment of students who find math challenging. If our national education system were to emphasize the importance of supporting mathematical development at the same scale as it supports reading development, there would be meaningful and immediate results.

As of October 2023, most U.S. states have enacted dyslexia-related legislation, but the same emphasis has not been placed on dyscalculia. While at least seven states have passed laws regarding math intervention and instruction since 2021, it will require a larger coalition to overcome this challenge.

Supporting struggling math students and those with dyscalculia is an opportunity for us all to create an inclusive environment where students are empowered with the latest information and interventions to be successful in math and in their future careers.

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