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Math Disorders

According to the DSM-5 just 2% of students have a Math Disorder, otherwise known as dyscalculia (dys -Latin for, and caulcula ———). We hear so many students claim, “I’m not good at math!” perhaps even a majority of students in high school and college. Thus, it is incumbent upon learning specialists and evaluators to discern the difference between students who: have foundational gaps in their math knowledge and are weaker in math than language arts, from those who have measured math weaknesses due to other conditions and the 2% who truly have a Specific Learning Disorder in Math. Based upon percentages alone, it is unlikely that a student who reports frustration with math performance actually has a Math Disorder. So why are there so many students frustrated by their math prowess?

My goal in writing these newsletters is to work towards a shared agreement and understanding of learning disorders. Thus, let’s begin with the definition of a Math Disorder, according to the DSM-5, which is:

To have a Math Disorder a student must consistently struggle from the early years with basic concepts and procedures. This does not mean that they must struggle with every calculation, but that the proportion of struggle is entirely out of the norm. Common early experiences of these students include:

  • Unable to reliably count change
  • Unable to estimate quantities
  • Unable to recall procedures such as multiplying fractions even with regular repetition
  • Unable to conduct mental math with a level of expected efficiency and accuracy
  • Unable to retain old concepts when new ones are taught
  • Unable to explain what is occurring when dividing, multiplying, working with fractions, etc. -they are unable to visualize math concepts

A Math Disorder (MD) will be felt and evident in the primary school years. If you ask an older student with MD about their early math functioning, he or she will be able to share tales of woe and embarrassment about their math skills. Typically they want to hide this problem not ask for help. Teachers may or may not have been knowledgeable in identifying their deficits formally, but teachers will have noted in some way that their math skills were below grade-level. Well-behaved conscientious students who ‘try their best,’ tend to avoid detection, as do well-behaved students in lower socio-economic schools.

Students with other diagnosable conditions exhibit reliable patterns of weakness in math. For example, those with ADHD tend to make frequent ‘careless errors’ in calculation, even when fully understanding concepts and procedures. Moments of inattention cause them to lose focus, interfering with their calculation accuracy. These students are frustrated by earning lower scores on tests due to these ‘silly’ errors. Then, students who have dyslexia tend to demonstrate slow calculation efficiency and difficulty with word problems, the latter due to their difficulty with reading comprehension. Students with ADHD and dyslexia tend to show slow automaticity with simple math calculations (reflected on the Math Facts Fluency subtest). They often report that they were unable to finish simple timed tests in third and fourth grade, a cause of much confusion and embarrassment for them. Whereas their peers could handily speed through a full page of math-facts, they could only complete half of them. This is the result of a lack of neural pruning in which neural pathways never become highly efficient ‘super highways,’ instead of remaining inefficient ‘dirt roads,’ And, we simply do not yet know how to improve this neural weakness. Thus, the allowance for additional time on tests, and the use of a calculator, are important and reasonable accommodations.

Finally, returning to those students who claim a weakness in math due to ‘earning a C in Algebra or Geometry.’ Higher-level abstract math is novel and difficult, and many students will struggle to master these concepts. Our culture now expects that motivated students can earn top grades in every subject with the proper effort and study habits, but this is unreasonable. You would not expect that your child could be a track star just because he desired to do so. Excelling in advanced math is no different. We each have our areas of relative weakness and strength, and modest struggles in abstract math is entirely normal. Gaps in early math knowledge are usually self-identified (I was never taught fractions well), and can be easily remediated with effort.