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

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Internet Bullies - who's had #enough ?

I’m sitting in the bright New Zealand sunshine in the middle of an unusually cold winter, watching my husband referee a soccer match. My work life has been fairly frantic this week, my writing life full of self-imposed deadlines and my family life ticking along on the regular undulating tide of semi-adult dramas brought home for Mum or Dad to sort out.

I log onto a Facebook reading group to issue my familiar promises - I will get the book read even if it’s at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute - only to discover another author friend reeling from a spate of internet bullying which has seen them abandon groups and retreat in fear.


Because they dared to give someone a constructive 3* review.

Any kind of bullying fills me with disgust. It twangs something deep in my stomach, to be honest. Yes, I was the slightly porky kid at high school who was often picked last for teams. My glasses didn’t help and my fuzzy hair topped off the image of the geeky, academic girl who’d do anything not to get noticed.

With the exception of a few rabid bosses over my quarter of a century in work (gulp) I left most of that-kind-of-behaviour behind at school, along with those-kind-of-people.

I commiserate with the author and make a mental note of the other person’s name, determined not to read or review their work in case I don’t like it either and need to remember they don’t want my opinion. Their work is clearly for admiring and not critiquing, as though they’re up there with Rembrandt and Michael Angelo. Look but don’t touch. Ok. Got that.

So I look through my newsfeed and see a comment about some point of view that I understand, but don’t necessarily agree with. I watch for a while and it seems fairly safe so I slip into the conversation and suggest another point of view.




What did I just say? Did I really dare to offer an alternative, as though I might actually have an opinion, even though I didn’t contradict or slate theirs?

Yes I did.

How very dare I!

I didn’t know there were abusive emoticons, but apparently there are. It must have taken someone hours to programme those hand gestures to work so perfectly.

In the space of five minutes, I'm shouted at in capital letters, emoticonned until the thread is light years long and told to do things to myself which I don’t think are physically viable. All because I thought differently.

It was a bit sickening and had that pervading odour, like when you walk into your lounge and smell the dog poo you just tramped across the carpet. That kind of feeling. I made it go away quite easily using 3 simple words. In fact it was quicker than getting the carpet shampoo out.

Block, report and unfollow.

Yep, they were gone. But with no desire to come across that person again in a social forum, I then culled my friends and made sure it wouldn’t happen, which means I’m now no longer friends with someone I actually quite liked. But their groupie gathering is dangerous, so it’s best I disconnect.

It’s interesting this internet mentality and how otherwise ordinary people, who smile at work, kiss their children goodnight and walk around like good citizens, suddenly morph into rabid mob fundamentalists when they get behind their keyboard.

Is it the lack of voice they feel they have which makes them the very definition of vitriolic?

Is it boredom?

What is it?

I remember once commenting on a friend’s hat on a photo they put up on Facebook. It was just a wee joke about an outing of a particular tweed cap in a photo of him pulling a funny face. The comments which ensued from one of his friends, allegedly defending said cap and man wearing it, were personal and spiteful and from a complete stranger. I’d known the cap wearer for years and it was a joke we had but I was mortified. My friend failed to intervene and the tirade continued, so I sadly unfriended him. A year later he private messaged me to ask why I unfriended him.

“What happened?” he asked. 

I answer in surprise, “Your ‘friend’ happened.”

“Oh, he’s not a real friend, he’s just a bit odd.”

“But you let him in your inner circle and he attacked me from there.”

“Didn’t see that. Sorry.”

I think we need to be a little pickier about who we allow into our personal space, especially if those in the inner circle still think there’s some kind of battle raging and their role is to capture the flag. To those who see it and do nothing, well, sadly you’re complicit and part of the problem.

Who are these people who spit venom to complete strangers and retreat behind a screen to lick the blood from their fingers? And why do the rest of us slowly draw back and hide when one of them starts?

It’s fascinating and I wish I took psychology papers at university instead of reading Jane Austen and James T Farrell. Actually I don’t, I’m lying. I loved Austen and Farrell. But I’d love to know what makes these keyboard warriors tick. Is it the same chemical which allows me the sideshow of a businessman and a grandad squaring off over a round white ball on a handkerchief of green grass, as my husband blows his whistle with cool authority and parts the fray? It can’t be the ball because that did nothing offensive, so it must be the testosterone laden males trying and failing to control its trajectory towards the sticking up posty things.

It feels as though the world has forgotten what consequences are. 

Remember consequences? They represent the results of the stuff you do.

You say something mean and someone gets hurt. That’s how this thing works, whether spoken or written. What astounds me is that these people wouldn’t say it to your face, no matter what they claim. But they’ll sit behind a keyboard and destroy your reputation and make threats out of the written word, cause ill feeling, destroy hours of someone's life or make another human being feel inferior for thinking differently.

More and more I’m seeing Facebook and email conversations admissible as evidence in court cases. Why not? It’s written and it’s date stamped. It’s fantastic. Sadly some of these hurtful people slinging their muck in our kind of arena won’t find themselves in court, but we need to show them it’s not ok to behave that way.

But who’s going to be brave enough to start it?

You are. You're going to be brave enough.

Next time you see someone making a spiteful comment for the sake of it, taking someone’s words and stringing them up, twisting meanings or just plain bullying, YOU need to intervene.

Just type the word #enough to show you don’t appreciate their behaviour. Do it where everyone can see and pass the word around. Unfriend them, block them and delete them from groups to show them it’s not acceptable.

It’s what I’ll be doing from now on. Because I’ve really had enough.

So how about you? Will you do it?