Restarting dyscalculia work after a long break
It is more than likely that after a prolonged period of disruption to normal educational activity, possibly including a prolonged period away from school, many dyscalculic pupils and students will have slipped back in terms of their maths ability.
Informal evidence that I have gathered from both parents and teachers does suggest that dyscalculic pupils and students do tend to need regular practice activities to retain both the knowledge they have gained, and to enable them to hold onto the additional confidence that this knowledge brings.
Therefore, if you are working with a child or a teenager who has (or who you suspect might have) dyscalculia, it is worth being prepared to re-start working with the individual by going back a few stages and trying to find some work that the individual will be able to do comfortably.
If the young person does remember the previous work all well and good – the return to work will have started out on a positive note. If there is any sign of the individual struggling with work that has previously been covered, generally the best thing to do is to abandon the new work and go back to earlier work and revise what has been covered before.
Such an approach secures the previous knowledge, and rebuilds confidence.
I appreciate that this approach might seem somewhat defeatist, in that it is anticipating that past work might well have been forgotten, but engaging the individual in a way that builds his or her confidence can be more vital for individuals with dyscalulia than moving on to the next topic.
In short, it can be best to assume as little as possible, and explore what has been remembered, before going on any further.
Thus, my suggestion is that as we start to think about working with dyscalculic pupils and students again in the new school year, we should also start by thinking primarily in terms of confidence building, not in terms of teaching some more maths.
By doing this we can help to start the new term with a positive feel rather than a suggestion that the pupil or student should remember the work, because it was covered in the past. Also, we can avoid suggestions that we will “go over that again” or “see what you remember”.
Indeed if it is possible to avoid any overt suggestion that the individual might have forgotten something, so much the better. If instead, we simply assume that this has happened, then if the individual pupil or student has NOT forgotten anything then this is an opportunity for praise and reward. If the individual has forgotten a lot, then we can seamlessly return to earlier work and go through it again.
Of course, this is a general point which applies every autumn when dyscalculic pupils and students return to school after a long break, but this year it is doubly important because of the additional disruption to education that many pupils and students will have suffered.
And this is not just in terms of the length of time that individuals might have gone without support for their dyscalculia, but also because not having to study maths for a while might have been a blessed relief for some dyscalculic pupils and students. Going back to maths might be an unwelcome reminder of past failures.
So, the more chances pupils and students have of getting some work right, and showing what they have remembered, the better it is for their mental well-being.
If you are new to this site, and you would like some information, you will find a list of other articles that might be of help to you on our home page
Tony Attwood C.Ed., B.A., M.Phil (Lond), F.Inst.A.M.
Head of the Dyscalculia Centre
The sadness of not testing
Over a third of all the enquiries we receive in relation to the online Dyscalculia Test that is offered by the Dyscalculia Centre come from adults who have gone through their school years without having been screened for dyscalculia but who fear they might have it.
And many of these adults who write in or call us have given up all hope of ever understanding basic maths. Indeed in many cases their one thought after a lifetime of hiding away from any engagement with numbers is to wonder if they really are stupid or if there is within them a special reason why they alone can’t understand maths, as everyone else can.
Indeed a lot of those people who write in share with us their stories, and many of these are utterly heartbreaking. For they are stories of a life blighted by not being able to do something that almost everyone around them can do. Something that is central to everyday life. The basic manipulation of numbers.
These adults often ask to be tested for dyscalculia, not because they have any hope of being able to understand maths, but simply because they want to know: are they just stupid or is there something else going on?
However some are wondering about themselves, not just because of a life blighted by a lack of mathematical understanding, but because they are seeing the same issues in their child and, because of their own mathematical failings, they feel completely unable to help the child.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many adults with dyscalculia evolve strategies that have helped them cope with their dyscalculia, and as a result the dyscalculia might not be so readily revealed within the diagnostic test.
Which is another reason why diagnostic testing of pupils and students who might be suspected of being dyscalculic is so important.
Unfortunately, just as there are some people around who say they simply don’t believe in climate change (but produce no evidence to refute the findings of science) so there are a few who claim that dyscalculia doesn’t exist, despite the mountain of findings from experts such as Professor Brian Butterworth and Dr Stephen Chin. The gene that causes the problem has been located and the results are indisputable.
Once a person is tested for dyscalculia then it is possible to devise a programme of study which can give the individual the ability to understand the basics of maths and overcome their feeling of incompetence and stupidity (which is how many dyscalculics feel about maths).
Of course, if the testing is not undertaken until adulthood a lot of psychological damage may have been done by then, and that is very hard to undo. But even then some emotional relief may be brought to the individual.
However, in my view it is far better if the testing can be done earlier so that an alternative teaching approach can be utilised and the individual can come to learn at least enough maths to cope with everyday life.
I am, at this point, not especially wanting to push my own organisation’s diagnostic test for dyscalculia, but rather would say that if you have any doubt about the validity of the notion of dyscalculia, please have a look at the work of some of the experts on the subject and then set out your counter-arguments so that we can have a proper debate and understand your objections to the notion that this genetic malfunction exists.
On the other hand if you would like to know more about dyscalculia please do take a look at some of the articles on this site.
Tony Attwood C.Ed., B.A., M.Phil (Lond), F.Inst.A.M.
Head of the Dyscalculia Centre
New Special Needs Regulator
The government is investigating the idea of a new regulator of special educational needs
According to a report in CYP Now the government is considering launching a new regulatory unit for overseeing both special educational needs and mental health provision. These proposals were initially given a trial run in Manchester and there is the thought that they can be rolled out across England.
The initial proposal comes from Great Minds Together which was initially set up to teach children Life Skills as After School and Holiday Clubs across Manchester works with schools, families and local authorities. The Education Select Committee is considering the proposals.
The founders of the organisation have been asked to brief the select committee of MPs on their work and develop a policy paper for the committee.
It has been reported that within the trial over 150 families with children with special needs were engaged, and there was a total success rate in re-engagement of pupils with formal education as well as improvement in children’s engagement, learning and attainment.
The select committee has indicated that it wants an independent SEND watchdog to work independently of Ofsted and the Department for Education.
Ian Mearns, a member of the previous select committee, said that, “There is a crisis in the provision of SEND and SEMH across our fractured education system. The report in the last parliament from the education select committee raised a number of key conclusions and recommendations to address the current state of affairs; including the need for a focused, rigorous and regular inspection process for SEND and SEMH providers.
“I have met with Great Minds Together on a number of occasions and have read the ideas and proposals contained within their manifesto, including the framework for an inspection and resolution service.
"The manifesto is an excellent contribution to the policy development discourse, and I wholeheartedly support the principles which underpin their proposals. I have invited Great Minds to produce a policy paper for wider discussion, which will hopefully act as a catalyst for debate on this incredibly important issue.
Great Minds Together have proposed the ring-fencing of government funds for SEND and the abolition of council procurement processes for education and children’s services.
Under their plans, parents will be treated as experts and allowed to write their children’s education, health and care plans.
It is an interesting proposal for special needs which are genetically inherited, such as dyslexia and dyscalculia, wherein some parents are indeed very fast to spot the sort of problem that they or their parents had with spelling or mathematics.
A very significant proportion of the schools that use the Dyscalculia Centre’s on-line test, and the learning materials that are provided for those who are found to have dyscalculia, copy and pass on the support materials that are provided with the test results so that parents can help support their children and bring their maths up to the level whereby they can be taught in the mainstream classroom.
Details of materials for teachers are to be found here.
Details of materials for parents are provided here
You can read more about all our services, including the on-line test for dyscalculia on our website.
The signs of dyscalculia: an introductory guide
How to estimate if an individual has dyscalculia without administering a test
On this website we have two tests for dyscalculia – one is a very straightforward free test which can be done in a matter of minutes; the other is a much more comprehensive test that can take between 20 and 30 minutes, and which gives a much more detailed assessment of the individual’s specific difficulties. The results of this more detailed test are also accompanied by materials that can help the individual start to overcome problem areas that the test reveals.
But if you do not wish to involve the individual in testing, but instead wish to make a preliminary diagnosis from your own observations, you might care to look at the issues set out below.
None of these are going to give you definitive answers about whether an individual has dyscalculia, but they can be indicative of whether it is worth investigating further. If you observe a number of these factors you might well decide that a more analytical test is going to be helpful.
1: Estimation. At different stages in a child’s development, the ability to estimate how many beans, books, counters or pens there are in a group comes into play. This doesn’t mean knowing that there are 35 counters on the table, but rather being able to estimate “30” as opposed to “100” or “5”. A refusal to estimate, perhaps combined with signs of anxiety or simply being reliant on pure guesswork, at a stage when others are willing and able to make a reasoned guess, is a suggestive trait.
2: Mental arithmetic is normally very seriously impaired in dyscalculic people. Again it is not so much the right answer to a mental arithmetic question that one is always looking for, but a guess or estimate of an answer that is in the right area. A failure to grasp the general area of the answer can be an indicator of dyscalculia.
3: Young people with dyscalculia have a problem dealing with all numbers, so counting backwards can be a particular difficulty, and dyscalculics will often find that they can’t undertake this task when others who might be poor at maths but not dyscalculic can at least make a valiant attempt.
4: Timing. Dyscalculics can learn to perform mathematical functions such as working out division questions, but invariably will undertake these more slowly than pupils and students who are poor at maths, but not dyscalculic.
5: Forgetfulness. Because of the genetic issues that cause dyscalculia, it is common for dyscalculic students who have learned a mathematical process such as long multiplication, long division or indeed certain times tables, then to forget what they have learned in a very short space of time.
6: Telling the time both in a 12 hour clock and a 24 hour time table can be very difficult for dyscalculics, and they often have a much greater difficulty with time that their fellows of a same age.
7: Being able to describe directions to proceed on a walk that they know very well (while most fellow pupils or students can do this) is another indication that dyscalculia may well be present.
8. The concept of zero can cause problems for dyscalculics, as this is, in many regards, a wholly artificial concept. It is noteworthy that the Roman Republic and Roman Empire was wholly organised on a mathematical system that did not contain a zero.
If you notice a number of issues from the above list being present in a child it is certainly worth considering whether the child is dyscalculic, and then if you feel that is the case, proceeding to one of the tests for dyscalculia on our site.
There are details of our on line test which can be administered by teachers on this website while if you are a parent considering the situation relating to your son or daughter there is further information that you may find helpful here.
Is it possible to diagnose dyscalculia without the individual taking a screening test?
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.
Growth mindset and dyscalculia
Two of the most common side-effects of dyscalculia are low self-esteem and low self-confidence, and it is widely recognised that if these factors can be removed the individual can overcome his or her dyscalculia very much more quickly, than if those factors stay in place.
Unfortunately, those of us who work with children and teenagers with dyscalculia quite naturally focus on helping these children to handle mathematics – and although we may well do our best to help overcome the impact of low self-confidence we generally can’t find the time to do that much in this area. We are too busy focussing on the dyscalculia itself!
Meanwhile the same problem arises for the parent – daily life is busy, the parent may well be out at work, there may well be other children in the house all with their own needs.
But meanwhile the child is wondering why she or he can’t “get” basic maths. Is the individual really lazy or stupid? How come others can all do it so easily?
One very successful way of overcoming this dual problem of dyscalculia plus low self-esteem is the use of the “Growth Mindset” alongside a programme aimed at overcoming the effects of dyscalculia. With a growth mindset, people believe that their abilities can be developed. It is not that they are doomed to be bad at maths forever because of their dyscalculia. That is merely the starting point from which they can grow.
Now this might seem to contradict the notion that dyscalculia is a genetic problem and as such cannot be “cured”. That is indeed true, but if the way the child’s brain works is seen simply as a starting point, then further progress can be made.
The problem we have is that in many situations the “growth mindset” is missing – and this makes it incredibly difficult for the dyscalculic child to move forward. And the problem can be reinforced if the parent is saying, “Don’t worry about spelling; I was never any good at maths and I’ve done all right.”
That seems reassuring in a way, but it also creates a barrier against progress.
So this idea of “Growth mindset” gives us a problem – it seems to go against the traditional vision of dyscalculia. But even if it can work, can it be used in a practical way in the school?
In fact a wide range of research shows that the adoption of a “growth mindset” programme in a school can help all the pupils and students in the school. It is easy to introduce, can be applied with a large number of pupils and students and it can help progress to be made with a whole range of difficulties that pupils and students might face.
The improvement in student learning among those who have undertaken a simple growth mindset programme is an increase in the rate of learning of around 20% - all for a few hours a year spent studying the growth mindset programme - a phenomenal achievement.
Indeed, as the TES review of the subject concluded in a review at the end of 2019, “such interventions would appear to be among the most cost-effective things that schools can do to increase student achievement.”
In fact even a single one-hour growth mindset intervention programme can have a phenomenal impact.
In such work, challenge seeking is established within the school – and different children work on different personal challenges. The children undertake a series of challenging courses – and through these they learn that they can indeed change and improve their lives. This then in turn encourages them to challenge themselves over the issue of dyscalculia. They are still dyscalculic, but now they believe that they can work with their dyscalculia so that it does not hold them back.
As the TES article concluded, “Growth mindset interventions are more effective when students in the school, on average, are more open to undertaking challenging tasks”. (TES 13 December 2019).
In essence “Growth mindset” is the idea that, with effort, it's possible to increase intelligence levels, talents, and abilities and overcome specific difficulties. Students who demonstrate a growth mindset believe their abilities develop over time, tend to seek out opportunities to gain new knowledge and broaden their skills, and do not typically shy away from challenges." (Kazakoff & Mitchell, 2017).
Against this, within the “fixed mindset” concept is the view that intelligence and issues related to specific problems such as dyscalculia are static, leading students to believe that their ability to progress is based not on their application and hard work but on whether they possess the required abilities.
Clearly the dyscalculic child does not have the ability to learn to undertake certain mathematical challenges, and so the child shies away from the challenges inherent with being dyscalculic.
According to Kazakoff & Mitchell, "Students who possess a fixed mindset are often preoccupied with the notion of high performance and will seek opportunities where they can prove their skills while avoiding situations where their weaknesses might be revealed." That of course does not help the dyscalculic child overcome her or his dyscalculia.
- perform better than students with a fixed mindset, significantly outscoring them in the areas of maths and literacy;
- are more likely to recognize the importance of effort in academic success;
- seek out challenging academic tasks to enhance learning; and
- value critical feedback.
Pupils and students with a growth mindset are generally given an education that incorporates nine separate approaches which are based on these points
1. Provide attainable challenges.
2. Give opportunities to face obstacles.
3. Teach and model good attitudes.
4. Teach how to accept constructive criticism.
5. View failure as learning.
6. Provide group learning opportunities.
7. Celebrate Successes and Minimize Failures.
8. Provide Opportunities to Celebrate the Success of Others.
9. Teach perseverance and the power of YET – as in you can’t do this yet, but keep going.
Thus a course for dyscalculic pupils or students can work alongside the teaching of the growth mindset so that the dyscalculic individual comes to believe that she or he is not pre-destined to fail, but is able to succeed, the success is more likely to be achieved, and will be achieved more quickly. The growth mindset in short greatly speeds up the learning programme, by giving the pupil or student the belief in ultimate success.