Numbers, a nightmare?

In a country where everybody is expected to be a high-achiever in math, it comes as a surprise – and shock – when one’s offspring has trouble with numbers. When scolding, threats, and extra practice fail to improve the score, parents realise that there could actually be a problem. That problem has a name – dyscalculia.

“Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability, with respect to arithmetic,” says Dr.S.Yamuna, consultant paediatrician and adolescent physician. Dyscalculia is suspected when a child is unable to meet the developmental milestones in mathematics. “Children start counting around age 4. They count from 1 to 10, and by age 5, up to 50. (Children skip numbers while counting, if they’re taught, ahead of time) Then come ascending and descending numbers, around 6-8 years. And if a child is having problems with all this in class 2, it’s time to seek help,” advises Dr.Yamuna.

Dyscalculia has a strong genetic link (parents tend to say “my son/ daughter is weak in math, just as I was”) and it also manifests itself outside the classroom, says Dr.Yamuna. “These children can also have problems in social life, as it affects time-related activities and sequential learning. As they grow older, they will have problems with the times-tables; mathematical calculations will take much longer. They’re also reluctant to give up using their fingers as a tool to add or subtract,” she explains.


Although the dyscalculic brain does not understand math as it should, by rote learning and repeated practice, the children complete assignments and do reasonably well in assessments in the lower grades. ‘However, when arithmetic progresses, their skills falter. Parents say “in Standard II, my child got 80 per cent; but now, in Standard VI, it’s down to single digit marks.” Some go into denial. By Standard 9, others would’ve beaten the child, and pushed them; only when nothing works, do the alarm bells ring. But by then, the children would’ve faced ridicule, from parents, siblings, peers and the school authorities. They will feel completely unskilled in math, and their self-esteem is hugely affected.”


Special educator and psychologist, Krithiga Viswanathan, says that when she encounters children with symptoms of dyscalculia, she recommends that they be assessed for the problem. “Only clinical psychologists and trained personnel can assess the kids. Once the diagnosis is completed, remedial classes are started. If the child is in, say, Standard 3, we go back two grades, and start with the concepts. It’s also important to keep in mind that if a child has trouble solving word problems, he/she might have other learning disabilities as well.”

“The best remedy is early detection,” agrees Dr.Yamuna. Dyscalculic children often face problems because of the pressure to absorb 100 per cent of the syllabus. “That’s when they fall behind very badly; remedial teachers can help here; they can be taught differently, approaching 50 to 70 per cent of the syllabus.”

Having dyscalculia does not mean the child’s IQ is low, says Krithiga. “They don’t have IQ problems; and they could be very good in other things; they only have trouble understanding arithmetic concepts,” she says. “We try and see where the problem is, and what type of learner he/she is, before formulating remedial lessons. Typically, I use a lot of computer based activities, as the kids don’t even realise they are learning. It’s more a game for them, than studying, and computers are also an excellent reinforcing medium,” Krithiga says.

Other simple ways in which parents can help are by playing board games (ludo, snakes and ladders), besides traditional ones like othaiya-rettaiya and palaanguzhi, says Dr.Yamuna. “Involve the children in everyday math; ask them to count steps; skip 300 times, so that they get comfortable up to 300. For ascending and descending numbers, tell them to skip till 25, and count backwards. Make subtraction a family game. All this will help bonding with the child and boost his confidence immensely.” For the board examination years, Dr.Yamuna says with all the provisions currently available (refer box), a child who has been diagnosed with dyscalculia can have extra support and time. And that, itself, offers hope for anybody suffering from this little known, yet fairly common disorder…

Help during exams

Dr. Virudhagirinathan, clinical neuropsychologist, lists the board exam provisions for children with diagnosed learning disabilities (certified by a neuropsychological test and respective school teachers, subject to DOE, Government of Tamil Nadu and regional director of CBSE schools)

* 1 hour extra time and allowance for spelling mistakes, as long as the meaning of the word is unchanged (for e.g. kamel instead of camel)

* Exemption of second language in case of severe disability.

* Use of calculators and Clarke’s tables

* A scribe, if there is a severe writing disorder

* A reader to read out questions, for children with reading disorders.

Diploma course

Dr.Virudhagirinathan, Clinical Neuropsychologist, says the country’s first official PG Diploma in learning disabilities, recognised by a medical university is offered in Chennai. Instrumental in starting this course, affiliated to the Tamil Nadu Dr.M.G.R Medical University, he says the one-year full-time course is open to any graduate (except engineering/law/C.A)

The Hindu : Features / Metroplus : Numbers, a nightmare?.

Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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