Math Learning Disabilities: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment - Edublox Online Tutor (2023)

Math Learning Disabilities: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment - Edublox Online Tutor (1)
Math is an unavoidable and required knowledge. Whether in science, business, or daily living, we cannot escape the use of numbers. Every job, from the rocket scientist to the sheepherder, requires the use of math! No matter the country you live in, the language you speak, math is unavoidable and required knowledge.

The effects of math failure during the years of schooling, as well as math illiteracy in adult life, can seriously handicap both daily living and vocational prospects. It may slam the door on a student’s occupational dreams; it may undermine their aspirations to be the president, a doctor, or an engineer.

Table of contents:
  • What is a math learning disability?
  • How common are math leaning disabilities?
  • What are the symptoms of math learning disabilities?
  • What causes math learning disabilities?
  • What is the best treatment for math learning disabilities?

What is a math learning disability?

The definition of a math learning disability includes well below average mathematical academic performance for age that is not attributable to an intellectual disability (which is defined by IQ below 70). The term dyscalculia, which means inability to calculate, is often used to describe math learning disabilities. Other terms include developmental dyscalculia, mathematical learning difficulty, arithmetic learning disability, number fact disorder, and number dyslexia. The DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) uses the term ‘Specific Learning Disorder with impairment in mathematics.’

How common are math learning disabilities?

Among students classified as learning disabled, math difficulties are as prevalent as reading difficulties. According to McLeod and Crump, about one-half of students with learning disabilities require supplemental work in mathematics.

What are the symptoms of math learning disabilities?

Math Learning Disabilities: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment - Edublox Online Tutor (2)

Symptoms include:

(Video) Dyscalculia Treatment

  • An inability to subitize (perceive without counting) even very small quantities. Most people can subitize up to six or seven objects. Children with math learning disabilities may find this very hard and may need to count even small numbers of objects. If, for example, they are presented with two objects, they may count the objects rather than just knowing that there are two.
  • Poor understanding of the signs +, -, ÷ and x, or may confuse these mathematical symbols.
  • Difficulty with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division or may find it difficult to understand the words “plus,” “add,” and “add-together.”
  • Poor mental arithmetic skills.
  • An inability to estimate whether a numerical answer is reasonable.
  • Immature strategies such as counting all instead of counting on. The child may work out 137 + 78 by drawing 137 dots and then 78 dots and then counting them all.
  • They may have trouble even with a calculator due to difficulties in the process of feeding in variables.
  • Inability to notice patterns. The world of math is full of patterns and the ability to see, predict and continue patterns is a key math skill. Take the sequence of the 5 x table, for example, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, etc. This is a very clear pattern, but a student with math learning disabilities may not readily spot it.
  • An inability to generalize. The ability to generalize makes life so much simpler in math, but a student with math learning disabilities may find this very hard. They might not see that knowing that 3 + 4 = 7 means they also know that 30 + 40 = 70, or even that 3 inches + 4 inches = 7 inches.
  • Children with math learning disabilities may experience directional confusion, i.e. have difficulty discriminating left from right, and north, south, east, and west. They may have poor memory for remembering learned navigational concepts: starboard and port, longitude and latitude, horizontal and vertical, and so on.
  • They may reverse or transpose numbers, for example, 63 for 36 or 785 for 875.
  • Children with math learning disabilities may encounter problems with numbers associated with the measurement of time, for example, one day is equal to 24 hours.
  • They may struggle to read a digital and analog clock.
  • They may have difficulty with time management, be unable to recall schedules and sequences of past or future events, be unable to keep track of time and be chronically late. They may be unable to memorize sequences of historical facts and dates; historical timelines may be vague.
  • They may have difficulty with everyday tasks like checking change.
  • They may have difficulty keeping score during games.
  • They may be unable to grasp and remember mathematical concepts, rules, formulae, and sequences.

What causes math learning disabilities?

There are three key factors that may be highly influential on dyscalculic students’ acquisition of numeracy and later mathematics. These are (1.) cognitive skills, (2.) mathematical language and skills, and (3.) the affective domain, especially anxiety.

Cognitive skills

Research has shown that perception, memory, and logical reasoning (which makes problem-solving possible) are the most important foundational skills of math.

Mercer identified three basic problem areas in the perceptual field that affect performance in mathematics: figure-ground differentiation, discrimination, and spatial orientation.

Figure-ground problems may cause difficulties in keeping individual problems separate from each other. The student may lose their place on a worksheet, confuse problem numbers with digits in the problem itself, or not finish the problem. Visual discrimination problems tend to cause inversions in number recognition, confusion among coins, confusion among operation symbols, confusion between the hands of the clock, and the like. Auditory discrimination problems cause confusion in oral counting and among endings of number words, such as /fourteen/, /forty/, etc.

Spatial problems may cause reversals and affect the ability to write problems horizontally or vertically, to understand before-after concepts, to understand the importance of directionality which, in turn, could affect regrouping, and to align rows of numbers with varying digits. Additionally, the child may have problems putting decimals in the right place, using the number line, understanding positive and negative integers, etc. Also affected are the ability to tell time, to understand geometry, and any other mathematical concepts which have to do with spatial and temporal orientations and relationships.

Students with math learning disabilities may encounter difficulties with short-term memory, long-term memory, working memory, and visual memory. They may find it difficult to begin a given task because they cannot remember the instructions or because they cannot remember what they must do to see it through. Long-term memory related to mathematical information also plays a key role in the learning and remembering of important mathematical facts such as simple addition (e.g. 5 + 4) and multiplication facts (e.g. 5 x 4). Several studies have shown that children with mathematical difficulties underperform on tests of various aspects of working memory, while visual memory may also be problematic for dyscalculic learners.

Szűcs and team (2013) set out to compare various potential theories of dyscalculia in more than a thousand 9-year-old children. The researchers found that children with dyscalculia showed poorvisuospatial memoryperformance. For example, they performed poorly when they had to remember the locations of items in a spatial grid.

(Video) Dyscalculia Symptoms

Since problem-solving involves numerous cognitive and linguistic processes, the ability to reason logically is at the heart of mathematics.

Mathematical language and skills

Mathematics has its own language. Mathematics is made up of words and written symbols that are used and must be learned in a unique way. From a very young age children are presented with mathematical terms such as “before,” “after,” “equals,” “more,” and “less.” Moreover, they encounter symbols of which they must learn the meaning, such as +, -, and x. Another key difficulty of math language is found when students with math learning disabilities are asked to tackle word problems.

There are also many things in mathematics that the student must learn to do, like, for example, the skills of counting, adding and subtracting, multiplication and division, applying place value and fractions, and reading time.

Math anxiety

Math anxiety is a negative reaction to math associated with negative emotions. Ashcraft and Faust(1994) define math anxiety as a feeling of tension, helplessness, mental disorganization and dread produced when one is required to manipulate numbers or to solve mathematical problems.

Mathematical tasks can cause high levels of anxiety particular to mathematics rather than to any other given difficult activity. Ashcraft and Faust found that high math anxious subjects were quite willing to sacrifice accuracy in order to maintain or improve speed. Children with math learning disabilities may experience intense fear, which may cause an inability to learn math concepts and skills or perform well on math tests.

What is the best treatment for math learning disabilities?

It should also be noted that learning is a stratified process. Certain skills have to be mastered first, before it becomes possible to master subsequent skills.

In order to be a basketball player, a person first has to master the foundational skills, e.g. passing, dribbling, defense, and shooting. In the same way, in order to do math, a child first has to learn the foundational skills of math, like visual perception and visual memory.

(Video) Overcoming Reading and Learning Difficulties

Math Learning Disabilities: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment - Edublox Online Tutor (3)

The second step would be to ensure that a student catches up on mathematical language and skills. This must be done in a sequential fashion. One has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. Suppose one tried to teach a child, who had not yet learned to count, to add and subtract. This would be quite impossible and no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child these skills. The child must learn to count first, before it becomes possible for him to learn to add and subtract.

Edublox offers help to students with mild to severe math learning disabilities. Our math help consists of:

  • Developing foundational math skills such as visual and auditory processing; visual, sequential, and working memory; and reasoning.
  • Teaching math skillsin a sequential fashion, such as counting and skip counting, adding and subtracting, multiplication and division, applying place value, fractions, understanding money, reading time, etc.
  • An in-depth understanding of math terminology.

Book a free consultationto discuss your child’s math learning needs.

Key takeaways

Math Learning Disabilities: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment - Edublox Online Tutor (4)
References and sources:

American Psychiatric Association (2013).Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders(5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Ashcraft, M. H., & Faust, M. W. (1994). Mathematics anxiety and mental arithmetic performance: An exploratory investigation.Cognition Emotion 8, 97-125.

(Video) Dysgraphia: Symptoms, Types, Causes, Treatment

Butterworth, B., & Yeo, D. (2004). Dyscalculia guidance: helping pupils with specific learning difficulties in maths. London: Fulton Publishers.

Chinn, S. J. (2004). The trouble with maths: a practical guide to helping learners with numeracy difficulties. London: Routledge Falmer.

Cockcroft, W. (1982). Mathematics counts. London: HMSO.

Faust, M. W., Ashcraft, M. H., & Fleck, D. E. (1996). Mathematics anxiety effects in simple and complex addition. Mathematical Cognition, 2, (1), 25-62.

McLeod, T., & Crump, W. (1978). The relationship of visuospatial skills and verbal ability to learning disabilities in mathematics.Journal of Learning Disabilities,4,237–241.

Mercer, C. D. (1997).Students with learning disabilities, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Price, G., & Ansari, D. (2013). Dyscalculia: Characteristics, causes, and treatments.Numeracy,6(1).

(Video) Dyscalculia Tutor

Rosselli, M., Matute, E., Pinto, N., & Ardila, A. (2006). Memory abilities in children with subtypes of dyscalculia. Developmental Neuropsychology 30, (3), 801-818.

Rubinsten, O., & Tannock, R. (2010). Mathematics anxiety in children with developmental dyscalculia.Behavioral and Brain Functions6,46.

Szucs, D., Devine, A., Soltesz, F., Nobes, A., & Gabriel, F. (2013).Developmental dyscalculia is related to visuo-spatial memory and inhibition impairment.Cortex,49(10), 2674-2688.


What causes math learning disability? ›

Here are two possible causes of dyscalculia: Genes and heredity: Dyscalculia tends to run in families. Research shows that genetics may also play a part in problems with math. Brain development: Brain imaging studies have shown some differences between people with and without dyscalculia.

How can I help my students with learning disabilities in mathematics? ›

What are strategies for teaching a student with a math-related learning disability?
  1. Avoid memory overload. ...
  2. Build retention by providing review within a day or two of the initial learning of difficult skills.
  3. Provide supervised practice to prevent students from practicing misconceptions and "misrules."
May 24, 2022

What are the 5 areas of math disabilities? ›

What Can Stand in the Way of a Student's Mathematical Development?
  • Incomplete Mastery of Number Facts. ...
  • Try it yourself. ...
  • Computational Weakness. ...
  • Difficulty Transferring Knowledge. ...
  • Making Connections. ...
  • Incomplete Understanding of the Language of Math.

What is math disability called? ›

Dyscalculia is a learning difficulty that affects an individual's ability to do basic arithmetic such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

What is a math disability? ›

Dyscalculia is a term used to describe specific learning disabilities that affect a child's ability to understand, learn, and perform math and number-based operations.


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