Dyscalculia is not as well-known as dyslexia or dysgraphia, but it can be just as
hard for children who suffer from it. This week on Homeschool Heartbeat, get an
inside look at life with dyscalculia—and hear strategies for helping your child
work through this learning struggle.
Diane Kummer: I’m joined today by my colleague Faith Berens.
She’s a homeschooling mom of two and a Special Needs Consultant here at HSLDA.
Faith has a master’s degree in reading and has over 15 years of teaching
experience in a variety of contexts. Faith, it’s great to have you on the
Faith Berens: Thank you Diane, I’m very happy to be here
When labels offer freedom [0:47]
Diane: Faith, can you briefly explain what dyscalculia is?
Faith: Sure, Diane! Sometimes, people will refer to dyscalculia as
the math version of dyslexia. That’s a simplistic term or way to think about it.
It is often referred to as math learning disability or a specific learning disability in
mathematics or even a mathematics disorder. And often students with this specific type
of learning difference also have underlying slow processing speed or difficulty with
Diane: When did you first find out that you had dyscalculia and what
was that discovery like?
Faith: Well, I had struggled all through school—elementary
school, particularly. I was pulled out for special math group instruction. But it
wasn’t until my undergrad college years: I went to the special student services
department to seek some academic support and some tutoring, and I was diagnosed with
And when I received that diagnosis, it actually brought such relief to me, because I
had struggled forever. I felt plagued with this thing that I couldn’t put a name
on. I didn’t understand why math was so hard for me. I didn’t understand why
I struggled to learn for years and years. So when I was finally given that diagnosis or
that label, it was very freeing to me and I felt a release and I felt that that label,
or that diagnosis, was a replacement for the lies and the other labels that I had put on
myself, such as “I’m stupid,” or “I’m not as good as at
math as so-and-so,” or “I’m unable,” or “I’m never
going to be able to do this,” or “never going to be able to understand
this.” So it was very freeing for me.
Life with dyscalculia [2:44]
Diane: Faith, how did your dyscalculia affect you as a child?
Faith: I struggled all through school. I remember just having such
difficulty with learning and mastering math facts, memory, retention. I couldn’t
conceptualize. I would look at numbers and it was like my eyes would just glaze over. I
would look at numbers, and it didn’t turn into a picture. In education we call
that a Gestalt: when people read, we make pictures in their minds, we make movies in our
minds of the words coming to life. And I had no trouble with words, but when I looked at
numbers, it didn’t conceptualize. It literally did not compute; it didn’t
turn into a picture for me.
I also struggled with visual-spatial skills and just difficulty with basic number
sense—understanding quantities and fractions.
Diane: Are you still affected by dyscalculia today?
Faith: I am. It’s not as bad as it used to be. It drives my
husband crazy, for instance, when we are trying to rearrange furniture in the house. I
really have a hard time picturing how things will turn and fit or not fit in a
space—those are those visual-spatial skills that are weak. Difficulty with money
management—oh my goodness! That’s why my husband is the accountant in our
family—but I have gotten better, and I can certainly balance my checkbook.
Needless to say: yes, I do still struggle with math today. If you were to give me a
spreadsheet with numbers, graphs, and charts—for instance, in the
workplace—it just takes me more time to think about those concepts. And
don’t ask me to keep score when we’re playing corn hole at home, okay!
The light bulb [4:28]
Diane: Faith, when you were a student, how did your parents and
teachers help you get past the learning difficulties you had because of your
Faith: Well, I want to share a little vignette from third grade. My
third grade teacher was one of my favorite teachers, and I’ll never forget the day
she brought out popsicle sticks for me. The light bulb literally went off in my head
with place value, borrowing, and regrouping.
Up until that point, it had all been pencil and paper and rote, and I literally could
not conceptualize why we were doing what we were doing—it was just learning by
rote. I knew you crossed out the number, you put that over here, and I learned the rote
process, but I didn’t understand the why behind it.
So that was one instance where a teacher helped me by just getting things that were
very visual, very hands-on.
My mom was a single working parent, and so she helped me as best as she could with my
homework. She did get me a really great tutor. He had worked at a day school for
students with various struggles. And he was relentless but patient and kind. He was so
encouraging! And without him I never would have made it through Algebra 1, [Algebra] 2,
or geometry—which I absolutely needed for university.
Choosing curriculum for dyscalculia [5:43]
Diane: Faith, what are the biggest struggles that parents who
homeschool a child with dyscalculia face?
Faith: I think that oftentimes teaching is not only frustrating for
the student, [but] it can also be really frustrating for the parent—particularly
if math comes easy for the teacher-parent, it is often hard for the parent to empathize
or understand: “Why don’t you get this? What is so hard to see about this
concept? We have gone over and over and over this. Why can’t you retain these math
facts?” It can be discouraging, not only for the student, but also for the
And when our children are struggling and we are their primary teacher, I think we
take that as a reflection on ourselves. Sometimes we think, “Perhaps I am not able
to teach this child, perhaps I am coming about this the wrong way, or maybe I need to
try a different curriculum.” And then fears and doubts creep in.
Diane: So what practical steps can these parents take to help their
children thrive despite their learning difficulties?
Faith: Well one, I encourage parents to educate themselves about
dyscalculia. They really are the experts when it comes to their children, but they also
need to be an expert in that specific learning disability. So Dyscalculia.org is a great
website, and Understood.org.
Secondly, they need to select a math curriculum that is multi-sensory (so it
addresses auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile). And that program needs to be
systematic, sequential, and explicit.
They should keep lessons short and succinct. Give plenty of review and
repetition/practice so that the student can get the steps in the process, the facts, the
terms, so that they can become more fluent and automatic with their work.
And they shouldn’t fear giving accommodations for the student, such as allow
extra time. Please do not do timed drills, as this only leads to more frustration and
anxiety for students with a math learning disability. And allow student to use a
calculator or a reference sheet.
You also may consider doing some type of cognitive therapy program that would address
underlying cognitive skills such as processing speed and memory, because the brain can
be strengthened and we can grow in those areas.
Understanding your student [8:06]
Diane: Faith, as you homeschool your children through their own
learning struggles, have you found that dealing with your dyscalculia has helped you
relate to them better—and if so, how?
Faith: Absolutely. It’s definitely helped me to recognize
early on. I notice things with my own kids much earlier than I think maybe other parents
would, simply because I had lived it, I had walked that walk. I think it helps me to
have compassion and to understand students that I work with or tutor, or as I’m
helping parents that are helping their own students, because I understand and I want
these kids to understand that despite the fact that they have these weaknesses, we all
do have weaknesses. God has equipped them and uniquely designed them, and with His help
and with their parents’ support, they can accomplish great things and they can
work to overcome their challenges.
Diane: That’s great insight, Faith. Can you recommend some
helpful resources for parents of children with dyscalculia?
Faith: Absolutely! Ronit Bird is a leading expert in the field of
dyscalculia, and she has wonderful resources, games, and teaching books on her website,
which is RonitBird.com. And some curricula that I really recommend for students with
dyscalculia include Shiller Math, Math-U-See, [and] Math on the Level. And I also like
the website the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. They have some wonderful
resources, articles, and a section for teens and students who struggle, so they
can come to understand themselves as learners.
Diane: Those are great ideas and valuable resources for homeschool
parents. Faith, your own experience with dyscalculia has enabled you to help so many
others. We’re so grateful for you. Thanks for tuning in, everyone. I’m Diane
Kummer, and I’m cheering you on.