Dyscalculia – a personal perspective

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Tears, anger, threats and bribes; homework can become a battleground. SPELD NZ mum, Deirdre Coleman, describes her experience helping her son manage his struggle with maths.

In his first few months at primary school, Ari’s teacher recognised that he might have a learning difference. He was bright, articulate and outgoing, but struggled with reading and writing. Ari was formally diagnosed as dyslexic in year 3 and after he began working with a SPELD NZ teacher, we saw good progress in his reading and spelling.

Ari is enjoying his maths tutoring with SPELD NZ teacher, Andrea Bright

However, he also found learning and retaining basic maths difficult, and maths homework became a real battleground. It was incredibly stressful for both of us. We’d sit together working through his Mathletics homework, but he hated it. We’d both get increasingly frustrated and he would just shut down because he didn’t understand. There would be tears, anger, threats and bribes. I didn’t want to give up on him but it became so counterproductive and I didn’t have the skills to teach him effectively. Eventually we approached the school and decided it was better to eliminate this stressful activity and let him enjoy the things he loves: swimming, drumming and mountain biking.

It wasn’t until this year when Ari began intermediate school that I realised he may have dyscalculia. His SPELD NZ teacher has helped him by using times table stories from Alan Walker’s Memorize in Minutes book. They’ve been a godsend. Ari has struggled for years, but I think now the times tables are finally sinking in. Without those basic facts, you really can’t move on to more complex maths. Ari’s next challenge is division, and his tutor spent a whole lesson explaining this concept to him because he had no idea what it meant.

Ari took a long time to learn his days of the week, and probably still hasn’t mastered the months.

Time is such an abstract concept and he finds it difficult to grasp – he still can’t use an analogue watch. At primary school, teachers would remind the kids and there were PA announcements about where they needed to be and when. At intermediate level they’re expected to self-manage and it can be a challenge for Ari to make meetings on time. He loves sport, art and music and I don’t want him to miss out on opportunities there because he forgot to go to the meeting.

I worry about the impact dyscalculia has on Ari’s confidence and self-esteem. It must be soul destroying to spend hours each week in a class where you have very little idea of what’s going on but the kids around you seem to understand it just fine.

An understanding of numbers and their relationships is something most of us take for granted, but for children with dyscalculia, it can be like trying to decipher hieroglyphs. Year 7 SPELD NZ student, Ari Cornwell, describes what maths is like for him.

When I’m doing maths it feels like it’s literally a different language. English can be challenging sometimes but it’s not like maths, where I don’t actually understand what the teacher is talking about. Sometimes science can be confusing too, especially if there’s maths and numbers involved.

Having to rush makes me get confused and I make mistakes, like writing numbers in the wrong order. I’ll think of a number, like 27, but then I write it down as 72, and I get the answer wrong. It’s much harder to think during a maths test and I sometimes even forget my times tables stories. It’s especially hard when they have numbers written out in letters, like ‘thirteen’ – that’s annoying.

To be honest, not having to do maths homework anymore has been really good, because my mum talked to my school about it and they said I didn’t have to do it. When I was younger, Mum used to make me do Mathletics homework. Sometimes when I didn’t understand it, I got so frustrated. It made me want to cry and give up. We used to get into a lot of arguments about it and it was really stressful.