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Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Mathematics and the Children with Dyscalculia

I tried to read the telephone number to my waiting colleague as he watched me with an odd look on his face. “04...” I began, wishing the numbers would sit still.

“What?” he looked confused. “That can’t be right.” He waited, his pen poised in the air and stared at me.

With a sigh, I watched the numbers bounce again. After a little shake like a waterlogged dog, the 4 moved away from the two. They settled and I started again. “0214...”

“That’s better.” Satisfied, he wrote the telephone number for IT support on a pad and thanked me.

I sat with my head in my hands and waited for the familiar panic to pass. It’s been a forty-six-year struggle and one I’m not alone in. I know not to transcribe numbers from paper to computer, or rewrite them on another piece of paper. I understand my brain drops them and picks them up differently in the time it takes between reading and transferring. I’m clumsy with the numbers like a card shuffler who sprays all 52 into the face of the other players by accident. He can do it once and his competitors might laugh and play a game of ‘52 card pick up’ with good grace...until he does it again. Then they get another card shuffler.

I was diagnosed with dyscalculia at the same time as my 8-year-old daughter. Ironically enough I worked at her primary school helping special needs children with their mastery of the English language. My daughter had all the classic symptoms and despite a proactive school, still spent another miserable year suffering until the UK education system pulled its finger out of its ear and gave her the label.

Dyscalculia is a form of dyslexia with mathematics and the statistics vary whichever source you rely on. I’ve seen it listed as high as one child in ten and I can spot them now, with very little effort. Why? Because I’m one of them and watched it ravage my own child’s confidence to the stage where she couldn’t add 1 + 1.

I hated maths at school. I grew up in the British Forces education system and back in the 1970s there was no such thing as a ‘dis’ or a ‘dys’. They didn’t exist and we were stupid children who exasperated our teachers when we cried over subtraction, or produced messy work born of confusion and misery. The only task I ever excelled at during maths lessons was times tables. I learned them like a song. I worked out tricks so I had less to remember and I counted on my fingers. My memory was good and it was my saving grace.

At fifteen I got a job working at a fish and chip shop in Lincoln. Adding the prices from the board on the wall was painful with the numbers jumping around, so my mother wrote me a list of every possible combination of food and added the prices up for me. I learned every one off by heart and it was a painful few weeks while I settled in. Cod and chips was £2.40 thirty years ago. See, I can still remember.

Nobody else can understand the frustration or misery of this condition. Kumon Maths helped my daughter with its constant repetition and ate our food budget for 4 years while she learned mathematical combinations by heart. It’s a gruelling, punishing programme which involves the child completing worksheets every single day, often 10 sheets of A5 paper filled with calculations. Then there are two compulsory classes per week. Ours were at the other end of town and I didn't have a car. It was a long, dark walk with my other three children tagging along after school and another long walk home with grizzling littlies. Often my daughter cried over the sums and covertly I cried over the answers, because that was the big whammy - I had to mark it. Who provides an answer booklet for something as easy as 7 + 9?

My nemesis numbers are terrifying. 0, 7 and 9 fill me with horror. In a line of working out, they can jump higher and further than all the others and potentially end up anywhere. I'm finding as I get older, they misbehave even more.

I worked with amazing teachers at that little school in England and they helped me so I could help my daughter. Writing numbers on paper was pointless, so we worked things out kinaesthetically. Fraction sums involved toys riding on each other’s shoulders and basic maths entertained giggly sugar highs, as we ate our body weight in Smarties and Cola Bottles, adding them, subtracting them and just plain scoffing them. We coped, we struggled and we shelled out money like an arterial bleed.

At 46 I’m fed up of dyscalculia. I avoid numbers but they’re still everywhere. If I have to enter phone numbers into the computer or swap them from one piece of paper to another, I get someone to read them to me. That works because I’m hearing the number and transcribing it and it’s a different mental process.

Everyone knows what dyslexia is but after almost two decades, the label dyscalculia still causes raised eyebrows and a sense of defeat amongst educators and parents. My daughter had great teachers in the UK but New Zealand was a whole other ball game. Few people knew what it was, let alone how to teach someone with it. We were lucky enough to come across a couple of people willing to help us and they were precious, selfless people. One was a teacher who got a babysitter to watch her children after school so she could give my daughter extra tuition. Another was a friend, also a maths teacher at another school who gave her an hour every Sunday afternoon in return for coveted bags of billtong.

These saints are few and far between and dyscalculia is a lonely, isolating label. There are resources online nowadays but if you believe your child is struggling - fight for them and don’t stop until someone listens. Then fight some more.

I’ve included this list of symptoms because it may have helped me all those years ago, knowing there was a problem but battling to be taken seriously.
There are other good resources and information at: 

I find it hard to accept that diagnosis and treatment can still be in its infancy after all these years, whereas funding has been put into dyslexia and other conditions. But that’s what the experts are saying. Maybe it will always be the poor man’s relation, I don’t know, but it’s real and it has the ability to ruin a person’s confidence for life.

Typical symptoms of dyscalculia/mathematical learning difficulties:

1. Has difficulty when counting backwards.
2. Has a poor sense of number and estimation.
3. Has difficulty in remembering ‘basic’ facts, despite many hours of practice/rote learning.
4. Has no strategies to compensate for lack of recall, other than to use counting.
5. Has difficulty in understanding place value and the role of zero in the Arabic/Hindu number system.
6. Has no sense of whether any answers that are obtained are right or nearly right.
7. Tends to be slower to perform calculations. (Therefore give less examples, rather than more time).
8. Forgets mathematical procedures, especially as they become more complex, for example ‘long’ division.
9. Addition is often the default operation. The other operations are usually very poorly executed (or avoided altogether).
10. Avoids tasks that are perceived as difficult and likely to result in a wrong answer.
11. Weak mental arithmetic skills.
12. High levels of mathematics anxiety.
Because mathematics is very developmental, any insecurity or uncertainty in early topics will impact on later topics, hence to need to take intervention back to basics.

Number 12 is huge and was a massive indicator for both myself and my daughter. Avoidance tactics such as feeling unwell or needing to frequently use the bathroom are a signpost to difficulty. And the other undocumented sign - messy work and numbers written in huge, untidy figures in a child’s work, who is otherwise neat and tidy.

People don’t look because they don’t want to see and they don’t know how to help. It takes effort to teach a child with dyscalculia because you have to think outside the box and who has time for that? I made time for it and can name other parents who sit for hours over their child's homework with them.

If your child is suffering, my heart goes out to you and to them. You will find strategies and you’ll both survive but it’s hard without back up. Find tricks and tips which help them get through and reassure them, they’re not stupid. At fifteen, my daughter underwent a very costly, privately funded test in NZ so the ministry would allow her an extra ten minutes in her exams. She had a mathematical age of 9 and a reading and comprehension age of 25. Work that out!

I write books for a living and leave the accounts to my husband because the tax man isn’t interested in my dyscalculia when I accidentally pay him the wrong amount.

Neither my daughter nor I died from this. We found our path and travelled it and your child will too. It just takes time and a lot more patience. Go well and feel comforted. You’re not alone.

#maths #school #parenting