Smartick Try it for free! Abrir el Menú Móvil Try it for free!
Accelerate your child’s learning
Smartick is a fun way to learn math!


Dyscalculia: What It Is, Causes and Treatments

Around twenty million people in the United States suffer from dyscalculia, a disorder that makes it difficult to learn mathematics. In today’s post we are going to talk about its causes, symptoms and treatment.

What is dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability with neurobiological origins that affects the acquisition of mathematical knowledge despite an IQ within the normal range. Dyscalculia also has an estimated prevalence of 5-7%, which is approximately the same as dyslexia (Butterworth, Varma, Laurillard, 2011; Geary, 2011).

But having difficulties with mathematics does not always imply having dyscalculia! There are other causes that can explain difficulties with mathematics. For example, a low intellectual level, attention difficulties, inadequate education methods, or limited numeracy learning experiences.

Causes of dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is caused by abnormalities in some brain structures that support the representation and processing of numerical information. Therefore, this learning disorder is said to have a neurobiological origin, i.e., there is a relationship between the difficulties of children with dyscalculia in performing mathematical tasks and the structural and functional abnormalities observed in their brains.

Experts tell us that these anomalies at the brain level are determined by the biological inheritance of each person. In other words, dyscalculia is a congenital disorder with an important genetic component. Therefore, if we take a group of people with dyscalculia and evaluate whether their parents also suffer from it, we will find that this is very likely to be the case. Moreover, the frequency of dyscalculia among siblings of children affected by this learning disorder is ten times higher than the frequency in the population.

Symptoms and signs of dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is a heterogeneous disability but, generally, children with dyscalculia experience difficulties with the most basic aspects of number processing and arithmetic. Learning difficulties in mathematics manifest in different ways depending on age. The ideal age to detect a problem with dyscalculia is between 6 and 8 years old, but the first symptoms can appear as early as preschool.

These indicators can be used to look for possible signs of dyscalculia, based on age:

Early childhood education

  • Problems learning to count. For example, they cannot remember the order of numbers correctly or when you ask them for four units they take a handful of something without counting them.
  • Difficulty understanding terms related to mathematics, such as ”larger” or ”smaller.”
  • Cannot understand the relationship between number and quantity. For example, they do not understand that ”4” can apply to a group of 4 cakes, 4 cars, or 4 friends.

Primary school

  • Difficulties identifying and using +, –  and other arithmetic symbols correctly.
  • Difficulty learning and remembering number facts (for example 2+8, 4×7).
  • Continue to use their fingers to count instead of more advanced strategies, like mental math.
  • Difficulty understanding words related to mathematics, such as, ”greater than” and ”less than.”
  • Problems with the visuospatial representation of numbers, such as number lines.
  • Difficulty understanding the place value (units, tens, hundreds).
  • Problems writing numbers or putting them in the correct column for written calculations.

Secondary school

  • Problems applying mathematical concepts to money, including estimating the total cost or exact change.
  • Difficulty understanding the information shown on graphs or on tables.
  • It takes a lot of effort to learn and understand multi-step reasoning methods and calculation procedure.
  • Problems trying to find different approaches to the same math problem (lack of mental flexibility).
  • Difficulty measuring ingredients in a simple recipe or liquids in a bottle.

What IS NOT dyscalculia?

However, it is important to be aware of the misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding the disorder. For example, it is important to understand that:

  • Dyscalculia is not caused by a lack of motivation.
  • Dyscalculia is not an intelligence problem.
  • Dyscalculia is not a laziness problem.
  • Dyscalculia is not rare.

Dyscalculia in daily life

The typical learning difficulties in mathematics for children with dyscalculia do not only affect schoolwork. It can create difficulties in the daily life of children because mathematics is everywhere. We need math skills to read a clock,  calculate change when shopping, or deciding how to evenly distribute a cake. In addition to the fact that the impact of mathematical achievement on the academic future, and employability, of people, is greater than the impact of literacy skills (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). Therefore, the identification of dyscalculia in children as early as possible is crucial to early intervention in order to help reduce the problem. 

The Smartick Dyscalculia Test is a standardized, online and free tool for children from first to fourth grade. The test easily and quickly identifies children with math learning difficulties, at risk of dyscalculia, and reports strengths and weaknesses in each of the tested areas.

If, according to their results in the Dyscalculia Test, a student is at risk, to obtain a diagnosis of dyscalculia it is necessary to go to a school psychopedagogical office with knowledge about dyscalculia, or refer the student to the school counselor for a complete evaluation. The evaluation should include psychological tests of intelligence, attention and reading, along with specific math tests.

Treatment and compensatory measures

After diagnosis, a specific and comprehensive intervention should be carried out, including dedicated work with a specialist in learning disorders, family involvement and curricular adaptations at school.

Discalculic children need adapted, daily training based on the understanding of concepts and procedures and with the use of manipulative materials that facilitate numerical comprehension. The personalized curriculum activities that we propose in the Smartick method can be of great help to students with these difficulties.

Manipulative materials, an essential tool

Manipulative materials help students in the learning process because they stimulate the internalization of mathematical concepts through the transition from concrete experience to abstract reasoning. Scientific studies show that the use of manipulative materials is particularly indicated for children with learning difficulties (Ruzic and O’Connell, 2001).

The emphasis should always be on deep understanding of concepts, never on using the materials to find mechanical answers.

At school

Treatment must be accompanied by compensatory measures at school. In particular teachers should make specific adaptations taking into account that it is necessary to cater for the child’s level of mathematics. It is important that teachers understand what dyscalculia is and that, since it can be resistant to treatment, it should not be a problem to provide tools and compensatory measures that facilitate the child’s tasks such as:

  • Leaving the multiplication tables or calculator for the child to consult.
  • Facilitate access to visual and manipulative material.
  • Let him/her count on his/her fingers.
  • Allowing the child more time for evaluation.

At home

What can parents do? First, do not feel guilty about your child’s problem. Then they should support them and understand their child’s difficulties with mathematics to prevent their self-esteem from deteriorating.

They can complement the child’s abilities by encouraging an environment in which there are playful references to numbers (calendars, card games, sports scrimmages…).

Trying Smartick with them can also be a good idea. The online elementary math learning method adapts exercise by exercise to the level and ability of each child. Remember that you can try Smartick for free, with no obligation.


  • Butterworth, B., Varma, S., & Laurillard, D. (2011). Dyscalculia: from brain to education. science332(6033), 1049-1053.
  • Bynner, J., & Parsons, S. (2006). Does Numeracy Matter More? London: National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy, Institute of Education, University of London.
  • Geary, D. C. (2011). Consequences, characteristics, and causes of mathematical learning disabilities and persistent low achievement in mathematics. Journal of developmental and behavioral pediatrics: JDBP32(3), 250.

Learn More:

Fun is our brain’s favorite way of learning
Diane Ackerman
Smartick is a fun way to learn math
  • 15 fun minutes a day
  • Adapts to your child’s level
  • Millions of students since 2009
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn
Hiwet Costa

Add a new public comment to the blog:

The comments that you write here are moderated and can be seen by other users.
For private inquiries please write to [email protected]

Your personal details will not be shown publicly.

I have read and accepted the Privacy and Cookies Policy