Treatment of Dyscalculia

Have you ever seen a door that was hanging only by its bottom hinge? That’s how the door of opportunity is for a person with no math competence! Language and math are the two hinges. If either is missing, there is virtually no opportunity to get anywhere in life.

Furthermore modern life is increasingly perilous. The essential skills for self-protection include math. Without treatment a person with severe dyscalculia is stuck in mud up to his hips. Someone might rescue him or run-over him, but he is at the mercy of others. If you teach someone with dyscalculia, you might be that rescuer. If you have dyscalculia, you better pray for a merciful rescuer!  

There are two kinds of dyscalculia – developmental and acquired. The latter is a result of a stroke or head injury. Dyscalculia is more pervasive in some people than in others. The ways to treat it vary with its manifestations and with the kinds of math skills yet to be mastered. To select appropriate treatments you need to identify both and then use your best communication skills to give or access help.

Testing and Observation

To get school support in treating developmental dyscalculia a professional diagnosis is required. Sometimes an educational psychologist will test for it, but a neuropsychologist is generally better equipped to identify the underlying neurologic deficits.

Because of funding issues most schools are reluctant to call-in the educational psychologist.  Neuropsychological testing is expensive; and unless you can pay for it, health insurance is the usual funding mechanism for children. Developmental dyscalculia in adults is usually not covered by health insurance.

Health insurance typically covers only acquired dyscalculia.  A medical rehabilitation program can include treatment of it, but funding for treatment of developmental dyscalculia in adults usually must come from private sources. If the subject is a child health insurance is more likely to pay for treatment.

Be sure that your neuropsychologist is fully qualified. In many locations any clinical psychologist can brand herself as a neuropsychologist without little formal training in the field. If such is the case where you are, it’s best to check membership in a national neuropsychological professional association.

Manifestations of Dyscalculia

Some people have trouble recognizing written numbers. Others don’t count accurately. Some don’t understand math concepts. Still others struggle with the memorization of math facts. It is also common for people with dyscalculia to have trouble with spatial perception. Their short term memory for where things are in space is weak. You might first come to suspect this if the person bumps into things a lot or can’t catch a ball. If he is good in team sports, spatial perception is probably not a problem. 

It is also common for kids to have both dyscalculia and dyslexia. If she sees the word “dog” and thinks it is “god” or confuses the letters p, b, d, and q, you can expect the same problem with 6 and 9, 28 and 82. She might also write some numbers backward.

Brain Plasticity and Remediation

It is now widely known that the human brain is remarkably “plastic” (structurally changeable). Vision therapy can help many who have trouble with spatial perception. Spatial memory is another issue, but it is not easy to tell the difference. You can informally assess spatial memory by games such as “Concentration”.  It’s best that the child play it with several competitors of approximately the same age. Dance lessons, piano lessons or gymnastics classes help some children develop better spatial awareness. Once you know how the disorder manifests in the student you can implement appropriate learning and teaching techniques and discover strategies that work.

Number Identification

Children can learn number identification by forming numbers with Play Dough. Writing them in a sand or salt tray helps some.  Incorrectly practice is fruitless, so an instructor needs to guide and supervise the activity.  A plastic model of the numeral can be “stamped” into the sand, so that the student can experience the shape by tracing it with her finger. While doing this she should speak or sing the numeral. The idea is to use tactile and auditory senses, because the visual pathway is weak. A kinesthetic approach can also help, once the student has good awareness of where he is in space. He can move his entire body or a limb to form the numbers on large surfaces or in the air.


It’s common to have trouble counting, because child fails to coordinate the movement of the hand with the recitation of the numerals. The simplest way to help is to hold his hand as he moves his pointing finger to the next item being counted. If that doesn’t work, non-math video games might help develop hand-eye coordination. Working on a sense of rhythm sometimes helps too. One way to do this is to bounce a large ball and count the bounces. Bouncing a large ball involves only large-muscle coordination. Another useful activity is to close the eyes and count sounds – drips of a faucet, clicks of a metronome or taps on wood. There are ways to make this activity both tactile and auditory or auditory alone. An abacus is also useful, provided the beads on the different levels are not all the same color.

Math Concepts

To teach math concepts use manipulatives. Objects such as dried beans or popcorn kernels are inexpensive. When a student can use them to demonstrate and understanding of the four math operations, she has grasped the concepts. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division concepts are usually mastered in that order. Once the understanding is there, the student can use them to figure out problems with small numbers. She can grasp the concept of division by dealing eight cards to four people or nine cards to three people. He can distribute a package of pre-counted napkins to several people and see how many pieces each gets.

A balance scale or a see-saw is useful for grasping the concept of equations. The objects you put on each end must be identical in weight and the fulcrum should be in the middle.  Furthermore the objects should be placed exactly the same distance from the ends. You can glue a tiny paper cup to each end to make the identical things stay in place. The materials must be prepared in advance and the activity instructor-supervised. The student should not expect to learn the physics and the math at the same time.

Geometric Figures

It’s easy to demonstrate that a rectangle can be cut into two triangles and that cutting-off the tip of a triangle makes it into a trapezoid. Working with strings and a piece of flat cork can be a way to memorize names of geometric shapes.

There are kits and games for teaching both simple and more advanced math concepts. You may be able to invent your own. Almost all kids with dyscalculia grasp concepts better by doing than by seeing.  

Math Facts

For memorization of math facts, the student should be allowed to use charts, such as multiplication tables, for as long as necessary.  It is easier to avoid overdependence on the chart than on a calculator. Once the student has mastered a specific math fact cover the answer with a sticker so she no longer can see that answer. When the chart wears out, the student should make a new one and put new stickers on that.

There are also multiplication-fact finger techniques that can be used inconspicuously whenever a multiplication fact cannot be retrieved from memory. If math fact memorization issues persist long term, but the student has a good grasp of concepts, he should be allowed to progress to more complex concepts even if he needs to rely permanently on the charts.

Math Processes

Regrouping, carrying and borrowing are examples of math processes that kids sometimes forget. Songs, rhymes or pneumonics are helpful memory tools for these.

In every math learning activity the student should verbalize what he is doing. Again – it’s a matter of using the stronger auditory sense.

Emotional Issues

It’s always wise to recognize a job well-done and to give adequate attention to academic areas that are easier for the student. Build on strengths. You can bypass math test anxiety by allowing extra time for testing.  The testing location should accommodate the need to verbalize the math processes without disturbing other students. It’s sometimes helpful to keep assessments informal. It’s possible to quantify a student’s math achievement without his awareness that he’s being tested. The objective, of course, is to build a healthy self-confidence.


As you can see there are many ways to integrate math instruction into home and school life. It is still important to get a formal diagnosis when you can for legal reasons. Schools and colleges are obligated to accommodate any learning disability that is well-documented. In any case it’s important to maximize learning strategies that work with the student’s unique hard-wiring.