By Tony Attwood C.Ed., B.A., M.Phil (Lond), F.Inst.A.M.
Head of the Dyscalculia Centre
I believe that the answer to the question in the headline above is “only up to a point”. Without an individual doing a diagnostic test it is possible for a teacher or indeed parent to suspect that the child might be dyscalculic – especially if a range of symptoms associated with dyscalculia can be seen. But that is not the same as having a diagnosis.
And there is a secondary issue here – because suspecting that a child might have dyscalculia does not of itself help the child overcome the problem. What we need is to move from the suspicion that dyscalculia is present, across to an understanding of what should be done in terms of teaching the child maths.
What makes the issue more problematic is that it is quite possible than an individual child might also suffer from a related condition, such as ADHD, and the symptoms of one can mask the symptoms of the other.
It is, of course, more than likely that a child with dyscalculia will become frustrated by maths and describe the subject as boring, while blaming the teacher at the same time! And there is always the possibility that the child is quite simply not very good at maths – rather than suffering from a specific genetically inherited problem.
Now these differences can have a huge impact on the child – both in terms of work at school and life after school. Having dyscalculia means that the child simply doesn’t and won’t understand the issues raised in maths when taught in the normal way. Being “not very good at maths” means that with slower teaching, the child can gradually learn enough maths to be able to handle the sort of computations that arise in daily life.
A child who is not very good at maths will be able to learn how a timetable operates and how to play games that involves numbers. These activities may well be beyond the ability of the dyscalculic child, unless she or he has specific help.
What’s more, the problems that the dyscalculic child has can go beyond maths and can involve understanding the passing of time, telling the time (even with a digital clock), the properties of shapes, the notion of sequences, the concept of “zero” and so on.
Of course, in many ways it is possible get around these problems – but when they move into the issue of budgeting the family accounts as an adult the whole issue can get a lot more serious.
This is why it is important to discover early on if the child is simply poor at maths or possibly has dyscalculia. If it is the latter, then work should also be done with the child which considers issues beyond doing text book maths.
The Dyscalculia Centre offers a low-cost on-line test for dyscalculia. It is not in any way as definitive as a test administered by an educational psychologist, but it can be very helpful in guiding parents and teachers towards the areas of difficulties that the child is experiencing, and suggesting if dyscalculia is likely to be the cause of these problems.