Math disabilities hold many students back. Schools often don’t screen them


Laura Jackson became very concerned about her daughter and mathematics when the girl was in third grade. While many of her classmates were taking their multiplication tests, Jackson’s daughter relied on her fingers to count, had difficulty reading clocks and burst into tears when asked at home to practice math flashcards.

At school, the 9-year-old had been receiving help from a math specialist for two years, with little improvement.

“We got to a point where she was asking me, ‘Mom, am I stupid?'” Jackson recalls.

One day, while having lunch with a friend, Jackson heard about a disorder known as dyscalculia. I later searched for a description of learning disabilities that affect a child’s ability to process numbers and retain mathematics knowledge. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is my baby,'” Jackson said.


the Reporting on cooperative educationa coalition of eight newsrooms, documents Math crisis Facing schools and Highlight progress. Join our live expert panel for families, “Solve a Math Problem,” at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday, October 17 at Members of the collaborative are, the Associated Press, the Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times.


Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of students face challenges Learn mathematics Due to disabilities such as dyscalculia, which is a neurodevelopmental learning disorder caused by differences in the parts of the brain that are involved in numbers and calculations. There are often obstacles to getting help.

American schools have long struggled to recognize and support students Learning difficulties of all kinds. Children often suffer while Waiting to receive a diagnosis; Families often have to turn to private providers to obtain one; Even with a diagnosis, some schools are unable to provide children with the help they need.

This is changing slowly – for some disabilities. Most states have passed laws mandating that early elementary students be screened for the most common reading difficulties. DyslexiaAnd countless districts train teachers in this Identify struggling readers. Meanwhile, parents and experts say schools are neglecting students with math difficulties such as dyscalculia, which affects up to 7% Of the population and They often coexist With dyslexia.

“There’s not as much research on math disorders or dyscalculia” as there is on reading difficulties, said Karen Wilson, a clinical neuropsychologist who specializes in evaluating children with learning differences. “This also applies to schools.”

Math scores in the United States have been poor for years and only a few years It has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. For some, learning difficulties may be due to dyscalculia or other mathematics learning difficulties, however, few teachers report that their students have been screened for dyscalculia.

Experts say that learning the most effective ways to teach students with arithmetic disabilities can make that happen Promoting mathematics education For all students.

“If this solution works for students with severe disconnections and slower processing speeds, it will still work for kids in the ‘middle’ who struggle with math,” said Sandra Elliott, a former special education teacher and current chief academic officer. An employee of TouchMath, a multi-sensory mathematics program.

Some signs of dyscalculia appear at an early age, if parents and teachers Know what to look for. Young children may have difficulty recognizing numbers or patterns. In elementary school, students may have trouble with math functions such as addition and subtraction, word problems, counting money, or remembering directions.

Even after Jackson learned about dyscalculia herself, her daughter’s public school in the Seattle area was skeptical that the third-grader had a learning disability because she was performing well in other areas. Teachers suggested that Jackson spend extra time on math at home.

“For a lot of parents, they assume the school is going to tell them there’s a problem, but that’s not how it works,” said Jackson, who eventually wrote a book, “Discovering Dyscalculia,” about her family’s journey.

Students with dyscalculia often need a more structured approach to learning math that includes “systematic and explicit” instruction, said Lynn Fox, a research professor of special education and human development at Vanderbilt University.

Part of the problem is that teachers do not receive the necessary training to work with children with arithmetic disabilities. At least one state, Virginia, requires dyslexia awareness training for teacher license renewal, but does not have similar requirements for training in math difficulties.

“It is very rare for bachelor’s degrees or even master’s degrees to focus on mathematics learning disabilities with any level of breadth, depth, quality or rigor,” said Amelia Malone, director of research and innovation at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Without more widespread knowledge and support about dyscalculia, many parents have had to seek out specialists and teachers themselves, which they say can be particularly difficult in mathematics, and expensive. In 2019, Jackson began taking her daughter out of school for part of each day to teach her math at home.

“I’m not a math teacher, but I was so desperate,” Jackson said. “No one knows anything, and we have to find out.”

At the educational organization Made for Math, specialists have found that children with dyscalculia need repetition, especially to understand mathematical facts. Some students attend private lessons up to four days a week, at a cost of up to $1,000 $1000 per month.

“It’s hard because it’s not something schools offer, and kids deserve it,” said Heather Brand, a mathematician and director of operations for the organization.

There is some progress across the country in screening more children for math difficulties, but the movement at the federal level — and in most states — is “nonexistent,” said Malone, of the National Center on Learning Disabilities.

New York City is one of the districts that has prioritized mathematics disability screening and early years mathematics education. In 2015 and 2016, the city spent $6 million to roll out a math curriculum that includes games, building blocks, art projects and songs. The district also introduced comprehensive screening tools for math and reading to try to identify students who may be falling behind.

Experts say there are ways all schools can make math education more accessible. In primary schoolsActivities that involve more senses should be used more widely, including whole body movements, songs to teach numbers and practical materials for arithmetic.

Jackson said her daughter would have benefited from a wide range of approaches at school. When the teen returned to high school math classes, after several years of learning math at home, she got an A in algebra.

“When you really understand what it means to have dyscalculia, you can look around and decide what that person needs to succeed,” Jackson said. “It’s not just that you’re ‘bad at math’ and need to work harder and try.”


The Associated Press Education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. AP is solely responsible for all content. ___

The Education Reporting Collaborative will host “Math Problem Solving: Helping Kids Find Joy and Success in Math,” a live expert panel, on Tuesday, October 17 at 8 p.m. ET. This webinar is designed for families looking for strategies to help children engage and excel in mathematics. The short link to register the event is:

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