by Erik Newman, Ph.D., LP
Parents frequently come to me for an evaluation because their child is struggling with math, and I’m tasked with determining the cause of those struggles. One potential cause of math difficulties is dyscalculia, a neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by impairments in basic mathematical skills. In school-aged children, these impairments can be reflected in many ways, including challenges with math calculation, applied math skills (e.g., working with money or time), or math fluency. However, it is possible to recognize potential signs of dyscalculia even in preschool if you know what to look for. Early signs of dyscalculia typically include challenges with processing numbers and quantities. The following six problems in numerical and quantitative processing can be early signs of dyscalculia:
- Problems Recognizing Small Quantities: Most children are able to instantly recognize and identify small quantities. Even young children typically develop a basic sense of “oneness,” “twoness,” and “threeness.” If your preschooler appears to have difficulty looking at small quantities of items and determining how many there are, this could be a red flag for dyscalculia.
- Problems with Quantity Estimation: Although young children generally don’t have an inherent sense of quantity, they are often able to estimate or approximate slightly larger quantities. This skill is believed to underlie basic math skills, and difficulties with this procedure can be an early sign of dyscalculia.
- Problems with Quantitative Comparison: Most children are able to look at two sets of items and determine which set contains more items. As children grow older, they are able to make finer distinctions between larger sets. However, even at an early age, children should be able to tell that a collection of 7 pieces of candy has more than a collection of 4 pieces.
- Problems Learning or Fluently Identifying Numbers: Frequently, young children start to recognize numbers and count before age 2 and most can count to 10 by age 4. Challenges with counting and fluent number identification can be a red flag for dyscalculia.
- Problems Matching Numbers with Quantities: As children develop the ability to count and recognize numbers, they should also be able to look at a collection of items, count them, and say the exact number of items. Problems with this translation could reflect difficulties with numerical or quantitative processing.
- Problems with Number Line Estimation: Number Line Estimation refers to the ability to estimate the position of missing numbers along a number line. For example, if a number line contains a “0” on the left side and a “10” on the right side, most school-aged children will be able to identify where the number “5” would go on the line. Children who still struggle with this kind of task by 2nd grade may be experiencing challenges with numerical or quantitative processing associated with dyscalculia.
It is important to remember that dyscalculia is only one potential cause of math challenges. Math is a complex skill because it requires a lot of other basic skills, such as the ability to sustain attention long enough to work through a problem, as well as hold and mentally organize information. It can also require solid reading and language skills, particularly when word problems are introduced. Challenges in these areas could reflect a different kind of struggle such as ADHD or dyslexia, which, in turn, affect math performance. If your child struggles with math, you might consider a) whether he or she is showing any of the challenges described above, and b) whether his or her challenges are confined to their math skills. For many children, the distinction is often unclear without collecting systematic data to determine the underlying cause. If you or your child’s teacher is struggling to figure out what’s going on, you may want to pursue a psychoeducational evaluation to clarify his or her challenges and needs.
Erik Newman, Ph.D., LP
Dr. Erik Newman is a clinical child psychologist with expertise in psychological and neuropsychological assessment. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He then obtained a Master of Arts degree in General/Theoretical Psychology and a Doctor of Philosophy degree, both from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He completed his internship in child and adolescent assessment and intervention at the UCSD/VA Psychology Internship Program and went on to complete his postdoctoral training in Biological Psychiatry and Neuroscience through the UC San Diego Department of Psychiatry. Over the last 14 years, he has worked in outpatient, inpatient, and school settings developing expertise in conducting psychological and neuropsychological evaluations for children, adolescents, and adults with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, learning disabilities, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, psychosis, and attachment disorders. He also spent six of those years conducting research on brain-behavior relationships, including neuroanatomical correlates of anxiety and inhibitory functioning. He has published numerous scientific articles and book chapters on ADHD, mood disorders, neuropsychological assessment, and clinical interventions.