Teaching Children with Dyscalculia

Though I have been teaching children with Dyscalculia (some of them even had Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, ADHD, Autism with IQ ranging from average to high functioning) for almost 2 years now, I had never thought of listing some of the things I do till someone recently asked for it on Quora. I have included what I wrote there, plus added more for future reference and hopefully these would help others working with Dyscalculia. So here’s how I worked with children with Dyscalculia.

Before I begin teaching I make sure I know the profile of the child. Some of them may struggle with reading, comprehension, visual perception, fine motor skills- maybe one of them or a combination of these areas. Their strengths are often underrated and it is important to take that into stock too. You would be amazed at how good they can be at other things. E.g. memory, organizational skills, high reaction times, ability to come up with their own (often correct) methods of solving sums, creativity (almost always overlooked), etc. If you don’t have access to their psychoeducational reports, look out for these things. Apart from those, here are a few things I always keep in mind.

  1. Always ensure you mention the real life application of the concept. They have most likely lost interest in the subject. Knowing how it can have relevance to their lives can help gauge their attention. e.g. percentages help with taxes, calculating discounts when shopping, figuring out appreciation or depreciation on items such as cars, cooking, planning a party under a budget, etc
  2. Make sure their math vocabulary is in place. Most importantly their understanding of prepositions. The ‘on’ ‘of’ ‘after’ etc. if not understood can change the whole meaning of the problem. Some words may not be understood which impede performance (despite having sound understanding of the basic concepts) e.g. in the question “John had 500 dollars with him. He spent 100 dollars on food, 250 dollars on clothes. How much did he save altogether?” Typically, the word altogether is associated with addition but here, you need to take the total expenditure and subtract it from the amount you had. A lot of children may not be able to infer that. They may need several demonstrations.
  3. Practice: A lot of time we demonstrate a sum and let them be. It is important that we get them to practice sums with the teacher so as to look for kind of errors they make and then work on them. e.g. if the student tends to ignore crucial information in the problem, I may get him to first highlight keywords in the question and then go ahead and work on the problems
  4. Math fluency: a lot of them are very poor with basic arithmetic skills. They can be poor at it or just plain slow. If possible, they should be allowed to use calculators and if that concession is not allowed, daily revision, both oral and written in arithmetic skills helps a long way. e.g. I had devised a home plan wherein the children practiced addition on Monday, subtraction on Tuesday, Multiplication on Wednesday, Division on Thursday and a mix of all on Friday. I have seen children show massive improvements in fluency after a few weeks. I have also seen drop in performance when the practice stops. So ideally the practice should continue till its automatic, preferably for a few months at least
  5. Metacognition: I teach children to look for their own errors before I point them out. Eventually, with time, they should be able to do it themselves. The idea is that during examination or when working independently they should be able to do it themselves. It will also give them a sense of control and boost their self confidence
  6. Watch out for errors such as copying figures or signs, often they will solve correctly and copy the answer wrong from the rough work. Or do the whole sum correctly with different figures. This calls for practice in Visual Perception skills.
  7. Those with fine motor skills will have trouble doing constructions or even drawing a straight line It is easy to get frustrated with them, but remember it is harder for them that it will ever be for us. Specific techniques as to how to hold the geometric instruments, how much pressure to put on paper, can make their lives a lot easier. Even something as simple as a use of paper weight to make sure the paper doesn’t move when they are drawing something, will help them a lot.
  8. Use humour and enthusiasm. Nothing helps more than a class that has a teacher that is full of enthusiasm and cracks jokes. We used abbreviations to help remember formulas. The most common one being that of remembering speed distance and time. We had use whatever names they liked to help remember DST. Depending on where their interests would lie, they would often use food, names of famous sports personality to help remember it better. I encourage use of puns to help remember information
  9. Look for reluctance and address it. It is easy to call them lazy, inattentive or defiant. The truth is, its just plain hard for them. They rather be stubborn about it than risk failing day in and day out. Let’s think about it from their perspective- how many of us actually understand quantum physics and would be willing to take a test on it after one year of instruction (and with a history of failing at it). Talk to them about it, develop a culture that looks at mistakes and failures as a part of learning and not as a result of incompetence. How we react to their performance also sets the stage for how they will work with you
  10. Compromise the values when focussing on the concept. When introducing a new concept, if they values are high the children may be intimidated. It is advisable to reduce the values to one digit or two digit numbers till children are comfortable with the concept and then introduce bigger values. E.g. In a question of profit and loss- I wouldn’t use amounts such as of $15685 or $45163. Instead will just use $100 or $500 to make calculations simpler. I would also avoid fractions or decimals and just use whole numbers before the concept is clear. Simple calculations reduce the drain on working memory allowing them to focus on other parts of the problems posed to them
  11. Quizzes: A lot of them have memory issues. It could be short term or low working memory capacity. To build on that, I would have last or first few minutes of every class as quiz time. A few minutes is a lot of time to revise basic fluency, math vocabulary and recap content previously learnt
  12. Believe in them and tell them that. I am not talking about telling them they will turn math geniuses, but telling them they will improve even if marginally. Any improvement should be brought to their attention and applauded. I wouldn’t appreciate unless they actually improved as I don’t want them to have a false sense of achievement but if they don’t improve, I will always appreciate the effort they put in their work. Trust me, that does wonders.





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