**Have a kid who hates math? This just might be the answer.**

*February 5, 2018*

Iâve always hated math. Iâm bad at math. I still count on my fingers and canât tell the âmore-thanâ symbol from the one for âless than.â True confession: I havenât been able to help one of my four kids with math homework since, oh, first grade.

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Frankly, reporting and writing this story has been torture because it involves explaining things aboutâŚmath. And numbers. Did I mention I hate math?

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So when I heard there really is something called âmath dyslexia,â I perked up.

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Could I have math dyslexia? Could your child?

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The short answer is that itâs still hard to know. There are no standard diagnostic tests for this brain-wiring glitch that makes it hard to learn basic arithmetic skills. But itâs a real, recognized learning disorder thatâs only begun to get wider recognition by scientists and teachers in the past 10 to 15 years.

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Thatâs about three decades behind research on reading dyslexia (the kind everyoneâs heard of). Itâs not clear yet if or how the two disorders are related. But they might beÂ equally commonâat least 7 to 10 out of every 100 people, researchers estimate.

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Maybe the best thing to know about math dyslexia: We can help ALL kids avoid its pitfalls, scientists now believe.

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And the earlier we start, the better. (Parents of toddlers and preschoolers, keep reading!)

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First, meet the real term: âdevelopmental dyscalculiaâ

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Thatâs pronounced âdis-kal-CUE-lee-ah.â Right, not exactly a household name. (Then again, dyslexia wasnât either, a generation ago.) ItÂ literally means âbad counting.â

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âThe core difficulty of dyscalculia is with the meaning of numbersâthings like understandingÂ symbols, quantity, sequencing, and basic number tasks,â says Daniel Ansari, a neuroscientist who heads theÂ Numerical Cognition LaboratoryÂ at OntarioâsÂ Western University.

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Dyscalculia is also described as lacking ânumber senseââunderstanding the basics of how numbers work. Pioneering researcherÂ Brian ButterworthÂ of University College London calls it ânumber blindness,â similar to how some of us are color blind.

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For example, your child might be able to count his toys: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. But when you then askÂ how manyÂ toys he has, he has no ideaâhe canât connect the act of counting to the meaning of it. Most kids can do thisÂ by age 3.5, Ansari says.

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Early understanding of numbers predicts how well kids are able to do math calculations later, research shows.

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Signs of trouble

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Itâs tricky to compare your child against a list of specific skills because kidsâ abilities advance at different rates. All kids count on their fingers, for example. But a child with dyscalculia might have persistent trouble with the following:

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In preschool and kindergarten:

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Telling which of two numbers is larger

Putting numbers in order

Counting a small group of objects (like dots on a paper)

Counting in the right order

Understanding that âthree dogsâ is the same as âthree catsâ or âthree wishes.â

Identifying Arabic numerals (1,2,3)

Connecting a numeral (â4â) to an amount (âfour crayonsâ)

Estimating how many of something there are (quantity)

Moving past the stage of counting on fingers to more efficient strategies

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In primary grades:

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Learning and recalling math facts (2+2=4)

Doing basic single-digit addition and multiplication

Learning the sequence of steps to solve simple math problems

Using multiplication and arithmetic tables

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All kids have to learn these skills. But kids with dyscalculia get stuck on them. They have more trouble with them compared to peers, then fall behind them.

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Possibly because similar pathways in the brain are involved, people with dyscalculia may also be frustrated by other numerical or spatial tasks. For example:

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Reading a clock face

Doing mental arithmetic

Reading a map (they might turn it in the direction itâs being used)

Knowing left and right

Remembering phone numbers and other data

Measuring or estimating temperature or speed

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Lacking number sense isnât just a math-class issue. Itâs an everyday issue. Our kids use numbers all day longÂ to buy things, play games, keep score, set the tableâŚ.

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What happens when kidsâ confidence and self-esteem plummets

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Math anxiety is a separate but relatedÂ problem thatâs also understudied, according to Ansari. Itâs a âchicken-or-egg, which-causes-which question,â he says. You can have math anxiety due to bad early learning experiences (a harsh teacher, a bad start on a unit) without having dyscalculia. Or kids can fall behind, lose confidence, and perform even more poorly because of their dyscalculia. The result: They often think of themselves as âstupidâ and âhopelessâ at math, and fear it. Math anxiety, in turn, can make doing arithmeticÂ even harder. Double trouble.

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But as with reading dyslexia, the child is often quite bright. They often do well in other subjects. In fact, even some professional mathematicians say they once struggled with arithmetic, Ansari says.

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Wait,Â mathematicians?

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âMath is numbers, but itâs also geometry, reasoning, algebra, calculus,â Ansari says.Â You can be bad at arithmetic and still learn these higher-level skills, he adds.

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So thereâs hope!

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Propping up number sense is key

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Helping all kids develop number literacy early in life can help minimize problems.

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âNumbers are so obvious to adults; we use them without thinking. But number words are abstract things,â Ansari told me. âThe number 3, for example, refers to three computers, three sounds, three snowflakes.â

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âAll kids need informal math at home,â he added. âWe can all provide this more consciously, just the way we all read to our children.â

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He suggests drawing attention to numbers in lots of positive ways:

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Talk about numbers.Â Some toddlers hear as many as 93,000 number-related words a year, compared to just 1,500 for others, according to aÂ studyÂ by University of Chicago psychologist Susan Levine. Hearing number talk at 14 to 30 months is one predictor of later math success, she found.

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Ask your child to compare two things: âWhich piece is bigger?â Count: âHere are two crackers.â âOh look, three big birds.â Use lots of spatial wordsâlikeÂ tall, short, curved, straight, circle, rectangle. Other LevineÂ researchÂ shows this helps with later spatial problem-solving.

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Have fun with numbers.Â Donât give kids worksheets in hopes of bolstering their ability. Make it fun. âPlay games in the car,â suggests Ansari. âAsk, âWhat comes between four and six? Which is more balloons, two or six?ââ Play board games that involve counting, like Chutes and Ladders, or card games like War that involve recognizing numbers. Look for age-appropriate computer math games your child might like.

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If youâre math anxious yourself, maybe find someone else to help with homework.Â Children of math-anxious parents learn less math over a school year and are more likely to be math-anxious themselves if their parents helped them with homework, showed a 2015 University of ChicagoÂ study. Thatâs because these parents may explain math less well. Or they may infect kidsâ attitude by saying things like âIâm bad at math.â (Hmm, so maybe I was right to be hands-off! All of my kids are actually pretty great at math!)

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If you suspect a problemâŚ

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Fair warning: As with reading dyslexia, it can be hard to find the right help. Actually harder, given the relative newness of this field. âThe honest answer: Weâre still clutching at straws,â Ansari told me.

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A few pointers that can help:

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Try a basic screening test.Â TheÂ Numeracy ScreenerÂ is a free, two-minute pencil-and-paper test developed by Ansari and Nadia Nosworthy of Western Universityâs Numerical Cognition Laboratory. It doesnât diagnose dyscalculia; it measures a childâs ability (in grades K to 3) to understand quantity, which has beenÂ shownÂ to correlate to arithmetic skills.

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Seek a professional assessment to rule out other problems.Â Unrelated issues, such as low IQ or ADHD, can also lead to poor math skills or a dislike of math. Start with your childâs doctor or teacher. Look for anÂ educational therapistÂ with specific experience in dyscalculia. They can run additional assessments and recommend supports.

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Remember that the problem is deeper than motivation or attention or not liking math.Â Itâs important to find low-pressure environments to tease skill deficits apart and help kids acquire skills, Ansari says. Helpful strategies in the classroom include allowing dyscalculic kids extra time for math work and letting them work at their own level. The less memorization and drilling thatâs required early on the better,Â experts suggest,Â to give them a taste of success and confidence. Allowing calculators helps older students too.Â

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Adding up success

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âEven if a child doesnât do well in arithmetic, thereâs no reason to suspect a difficulty that canât be fixed,â Ansari told me. âItâs just a starting point that shows we need to spend more time with a child to help him or her understand the meaning of numbers.â

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And hereâs why:Â Math abilities arenât chiseled in stone.Â âThe wonderful thing about the brain is its ability to change,â Ansari says. âIn the reading field, itâs been shown that a child with dyslexia who gets reading remediation learns to use compensatory strategies and brain circuits normalize.â

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The same thing seems true for math, he says: âMaybe the child wonât go into accounting, but most can reach a level of functional numeracy required in most walks of life.â

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Or just maybe, with the right support, he or she will wind up as a brilliant professional mathematicianâsomeone who isnât so great at arithmetic but thrives at higher-order thinking.

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Wouldnât that be something?

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Paula Spencer Scott is a mom of 4 and step-mom of 2âand the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about parenting, health, and eldercare, includingÂ Bright From the Start;Â The Happiest Toddler on the Block;Â Like Mother, Like Daughter;Â andÂ Surviving Alzheimerâs.

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NOTE: This article was originally published on Kinstantly.

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Photo:Â Kelly Teague/Flickr

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