Math Challenges and Dyscalculia

Do you have a child that struggles in math? Math anxiety may be common among students, but it is not the same as a learning disability in math. Dyscalculia is a specific brain-based learning difference that affects a student’s ability to understand, learn, and perform math and number-based operations. It is as common as dyslexia, impacting up to 10% of the population.   

A student with dyscalculia can work hard in class and still not understand math concepts or perform math tasks. The most significant sign of this learning difference is the discrepancy between ability and aptitude. A child with dyscalculia may put the same energy and effort into all their subjects and do well in everything but math, failing to grasp concepts and meet class requirements.  

What signs should you be paying attention to if you have a child struggling with math?

Signs of Dyscalculia 

Preschool and Early Elementary 

  • Has trouble learning to count and skips over numbers long after kids the same age can remember numbers in the correct order  
  • Doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of counting  
  • Struggles to recognize patterns 
  • Has trouble understanding number symbols, like making the connection between “7” and the word seven  
  • Struggles to connect a number to an object, like knowing that “3” applies to groups of things like three cookies, three cars, or three kids 


  • Has trouble learning and recalling basic math facts, like 2 + 4 = 6 
  • Still uses fingers to count instead of using more advanced strategies (like mental math) 
  • Struggles to identify math signs like + and ‒ and use them correctly 
  • Has a tough time understanding math phrases like “greater than” and “less than”  
  • Has trouble with place value, often putting numbers in the wrong column 

Middle School  

  • Struggles with math concepts like commutativity (3 + 5 is the same as 5 + 3) and inversion (being able to solve 3 + 26 ‒ 26 without calculating) 
  • Needs help understanding math language and coming up with a plan to solve a math problem 
  • Has a hard time figuring out the total cost of things and keeping track of money (like on a lunch account) 
  • Avoids situations that require understanding numbers, like games that involve math 
  • Has trouble keeping score in sports games and gym activities   

Math and Working Memory  

Students need working memory to identify numbers in their place value, know the steps to solve a long multiplication, addition, subtraction, and division, be able to identify information and know what to do to solve a word problem, and the list goes on… 

Working memory holds information in your mind so you can work with it. That’s why working memory and math co-exist together. And why we need to work on WM if we want students to understand math 

Activities that Develop Mathematical Thinking   

  • Play with dice 
  • Any manipulative material 
  • Coins & bills (real and fake) 
  • Number lines 
  • Counters 
  • Base ten chart 
  • Do supermarket price checks together. What is the cheapest? Which product is more expensive? 
  • Counting. How many balls do we have? How many toys? How many red cars can you see?  
  • Cook together and practice measuring and counting quantities. 

Where to Get Help   

At LDS, our RISE One-to-One Instruction provides individualized learning support for students with learning differences like dyscalculia. We support students with suspected or diagnosed learning differences, so you do not need a diagnosis to get help for a child with math challenges.  

Please note that the signs above are for suggested use and should not be considered a definitive diagnosis. An accurate diagnosis of dyscalculia requires a complete evaluation by an education professional, such as a neuropsychologist, educational psychologist, or school psychologist. If you notice several of these signs in your child, consult a health or education professional for appropriate evaluation and support. 

– Sofia Lopez Nakashima, Case Manager and Instructor

LDS is a community of dedicated professionals who write collaboratively. We recognize the contribution of unnamed team members for their wisdom and input.