Childhood math disability

A Closer Look at Childhood Math Disability and Difficulty

During my postgraduate studies, I decided to study neuropsychology to complement my background in child developmental psychology. This led to my doing research on children with learning disabilities, particularly problems reading due to dyslexia.

While studying learning disabilities, I was surprised to discover that a small percentage of the population experienced profound difficulties with basic math and numerical concepts, a condition called dyscalculia. Some adults have such severe dyscalculia that they have trouble performing even basic math, like elementary addition and subtraction problems. Like dyslexia, the condition is profound and appears to be biologically based.

I became interested in this phenomenon and discovered that there was very little research on the topic. There was research on math cognition and research on learning disabilities, but very little that looked at the intersection of the two.

The Long-Term Effects of Math Disability and Difficulty

I decided that the math disability and difficulty were subjects that needed more study, so I began a long-term longitudinal study intended to answer the question “What do math difficulties look like in early childhood?”

Initially, the study was intended to study children from kindergarten through third grade. However, at the end of each cycle of the study, we found further evidence that a small subset of children was continuing to struggle with mathematics. Eventually, the study produced a body of research on children all the way up through 12th grade. Since then, I’ve expanded my scope to include preschool children, looking at the ways in which they begin to learn basic numerical concepts and “pre-math” skills.

As other researchers began to study the topic, a growing body of research on math learning and achievement has allowed us to make some important observations. The most important is that math proficiency or difficulty in early childhood does predict, to some extent, how well children do in math throughout their school years.

Math Disability vs. Math Difficulty

My current research is a combination of lab research and psychometric testing. We’ve developed specialized lab tests designed to measure math cognition. We also administer standardized math testing to see how the results of our lab studies correlate to test performance in a classroom environment.

We’ve discovered that math disability and difficulty is not a single phenomenon, rather a wide range of conditions – which makes it problematic to draw a one-to-one comparison to learning disabilities like dyslexia. While reading is a specialized, defined skill that’s taught early in life, math is a rich discipline that involves lots of different skills and is affected by many cognitive abilities. How do we differentiate math disabilities from math difficulties? It’s a question that we still need more study to resolve.

Children who suffer from dyscalculia, a biologically based, fundamental problem with comprehending math concepts, are a small percentage of the total population that experiences math difficulty. Math difficulty can be hard to pin down, as it’s often part of a larger picture, affected by cognitive functions, motivation and environmental and social issues. As we continue our studies, we will get a clearer picture of the landscape of math disability and difficulty.

Working Towards Solutions

We’ve recently joined a collaborative team of researchers to work together towards creating real-world applications of our research on early childhood math development. We want to create activities that are designed to promote deeper mathematical thinking in preschoolers. A particular focus is looking at whether improvements in executive function will help support the development of mathematical thinking and vice versa.

In general, we want to look at the role of parents and caregivers in children between two and four and how different activities might facilitate engagement in mathematical thinking. Do certain activities elicit more math talk from parents? Do they present math in a fun enjoyable way? Most importantly, how can we get those activities into the child’s home or preschool environment?

Because math disability and difficulty is such an unrecognized condition compared to reading disorders, it’s important that we build awareness and a base of knowledge regarding the condition. Teachers often recognize that students are struggling with math, but have many more resources to help them identify and deal with children with reading disabilities. It’s also important for teachers to understand that, for student who have dyscalculia, the problems they experience with math will never fully go away. We can help them deal with the issue as best as possible, but they will always require special attention and teaching with math. The good news is that there are many effective forms of instruction or intervention for children with math difficulties. The key is matching the interventions with the individual child’s skills and knowledge and the child’s individual obstacles to success.

Tips for Encouraging Math Learning

Creating a positive math learning environment is crucial to encouraging achievement in math and STEM later in life. We’ve observed math anxiety even in elementary-aged children, so it’s important that parents and teachers create a mathematically rich environment in a child’s early years. Here are some basic tips for promoting math success in your child’s life:

  • Look for opportunities to point out math concepts. Anytime math or geometric concepts come up in your daily life, make sure to point them out and praise your child for using them. This could be things as simple as counting the number of forks or napkins necessary to set the table.
  • Teach them to apply math. It’s important to portray math as something that’s not just a school-based activity, but a useful tool for everyday life. With my children, we used math to calculate whether or not a neighbor’s tree, which was leaning dramatically towards our home, would fall on it if it fell (as it turns out, it would have had we not trimmed it after doing the necessary math).
  • Recognize misconceptions. Too often, we see a child struggling with a current classroom lesson and assume that he or she is only having difficulty with the new material. Go back and ask them questions you think they should answer easily to make sure that there’s not a more fundamental problem with grasping math or numerical concepts.
  • Pay attention to your messaging. Are you unconsciously making comments about math being too hard, unimportant or not for girls? These negative messages can have a profound impact on your child’s attitude towards math.
  • Use the resources available to you. If you suspect your child has a math disability, websites like the National Center for Learning Disabilities and Misunderstood Minds can provide a wealth of information about dealing with it. To take part in general math- and science-oriented activities and events, check the University of Minnesota’s STEM Education Center.
Michele M. Mazzocco

About the Author

Michele M. Mazzocco

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