Dyscalculia or just math anxiety?

6 min

To begin with, let’s admit. Math is not a very favourite subject for a majority of people. Apart from a lot of notions revolving around this, there are some realities that need to be accepted. 3% to 7% of the population suffers from dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is nothing but a disability of performing maths.


Poor mathematical ability places a burden on both the person and society. Moreover, the probability of these people being unemployed and developing depressive symptoms is twice that of others.

It’s defined as a condition in which a person faces difficulties with learning. Also, understanding numbers, or comprehending arithmetic becomes difficult. In addition, performing calculations, and learning facts in mathematics becomes hard.

This causes severe and persistent difficulties performing arithmetics. This leads to marked impairment of performance in school, work, and almost many walks of life. It also increases the risk of mental co-morbidities. People with dyscalculia have an increased chance of suffering from dyslexia, ADHD, and certain internal and externalizing mental disorders.


Before we probe in any further, we need to understand certain straight facts. These facts are common to most types of learning disabilities, especially dyscalculia.

  • There is no particular type in this condition. It is unique to every individual.
  • It impacts various age groups at various stages of development.
  • The visual-spatial component is involved
  • Difficulties with language processing are also observed.


The sex ratio of dyscalculia is almost equal. However, a small predominance towards the female population is observed.


The exact reason behind this condition is unknown. But researchers point out that genetics play a major role. It is also a congenital and lifelong condition.

In addition, the physical structure of the brain and how it functions can also play a role. There is a connection between dyscalculia and dyslexia. About half of the population with dyscalculia also have issues with reading. And, children with dyslexia have trouble with maths.

Genetically, abnormality with the X-chromosome is associated with problems in the development of the parietal lobe and also on numerical abilities. This is the reason people with X chromosomal abnormalities as Turner syndrome and fragile X syndrome have great difficulty in maths.

It is very common in children to have more than one learning and attention issues.


  • These people have a mild tendency to wait for others to figure out a way for their problems. They have a learned helplessness.
  • They have difficulties with active learning.
  • Poor memory and attention are not uncommon in these people.
  • Anxiety and stress on maths can also take a toll
  • Meta cognition is also stated as a reason behind dyscalculia.


The symptoms include the following,

Dyscalculia becomes more noticeable as children grow older and the maths becomes more complex.

  • Difficulty recognizing numbers and symbols
  • Hard time with visualizing, counting, and estimating numbers, quantities, etc.
  • In the preschool years, there might be difficulties in processing numbers and quantities.
  • Some areas of difficulties might include, comparison between two quantities, measuring ingredients, making exact changes at the store.
  • The concept of more versus less will be considered very hard to catch.
  • They have a hard time understanding what numbers are and how they work. (For example; they might not know that the symbol for a number and a writing them in words are the same – this disability is also known as number sense)
  • Expressing difficulties with procedural aspects of maths
  • Difficulty with rules of mathematics like formulas
  • Patterns and spatial relations are complex for them.
  • An aversion towards attending school, due to repeated failure in mathematics and low self-esteem.
  • The affected individual develops diverse mental symptoms and disorders.
  • Aggressiveness and agitation are very common. (also known as externalizing factors or types)
  • Anxiety and depression (also known as internalizing factors or types)
  • Finger calculation is not an indication of dyscalculia


Dyscalculics show,

  • A great difficulty is seen in remembering phone numbers
  • They tend to keep on using the same codes and pins for a lot of everyday life activities (number of the safe, ATMs, etc.)
  • Very bad at shopping and paying bills
  • Difficulty with time and maintaining timings.
  • The timing with which they tend to answer very simple and straight calculations.

Diagnosing dyscalculia is based on the following,

These include testing, clinical examination and history, and psychosocial assessment.

Tests in various form like mathematical ones, memory and testing for disabilities are done.

A family history is very important to see involvement of genetics.

In some cases imaging mainly around the parietal areas is done to rule out certain differentials.


In case of dyscalculia the child has problems in every day life be it with classwork, homework or exams. On the other hand, in dyscalculia they can perform pretty good in homework and everyday stuff but bad at exams particularly.

In the case of math anxiety, anxiousness, feeling stressed, and disorientation tend to build up when we take up a test in maths. This is a common phenomenon and affects almost 20% of the population. It necessarily doesn’t mean that we are bad at maths. Anxiety plays a major role in decreased performance in maths.

Anxiety tends to decrease the cognitive skills of a person greatly reducing working memory.

A study concluded that the attitude of the parents and teachers about maths can largely affect the way children see it. Children tend to internalise and create opinion based on their education givers. The pressure to solve the problems quickly can put a lot of stress in children.


Math anxiety is easy to resolve through these,

  • Short and slow relaxing breaths can clear up the anxiety and gives good clarity. Taking long walks, breathing exercises, etc. also prevents the build-up of muscle tension
  • Writing down or journaling a stressful experience helps a lot psychologically
  • The above pointer also allows you to re-evaluate a stressful experience thus freeing up working memory.
  • The growth midset: Thinking of yourself and viewing yourself as someone who can grow and develop can actually make you improve and grow a lot. The brain is a dynamic organ and it can always help you develop your skills.
  • Instilling and reassuring your kid or student and encouraging them through hardships is a very important step in conquering the condition.
  • Never show a negative attitude towards their issue and be playful and find better ways to teach them
  • Be very patient with them when they work out their way through the problems.


Children do not outgrow dyscalculia. But, there are certain strategies to make maths more fun and easy to understand. As we already saw, it is very common in children to have more than one learning and attention issue.

But, it is very important to address dyscalculia or math disability separately from other issues.

Learning numbers and understanding them using senses:

They might start out by counting out a set of 5 beads and feeling them at the same time. They can also clap out 5 times, to feel the numbers and their sense. Or start by ringing a bell to indicate the number etc.

And, the concept can be understood in a wholesome manner. They provide an opportunity to connect to basic math concepts and skills.

Extended time:

Children might also get extra time to complete their assignments and tests as a way of encouragement. This gives them a sense of closure.

Using manipulatives:

Manipulatives in the form of number blocks and lines proved to be useful. Playing and solving math-related problems at home have shown significant improvement in math skills. Lots of apps and software are available to support people with this condition.

Incorporating maths in everyday life:

Demonstrating maths in everyday life proves to be a practical way of teaching.

Finally, we have to understand that, dyscalculia has nothing to do with the intelligence of a child. The child can have difficulty in maths and still thrive in other aspects of school and life.

Modification of teaching strategies:

  • Teaching maths for real-world applications
  • Creating word walls for terms, exponents, etc.
  • Diagrammatic representations of concepts (for better grasping).
  • The repeated emphasis of key concepts is very important
  • Teaching them to use various devices that aid in mathematical calculations. (example – calculators)
  • Encourage co-operative learning
  • Make sure they get concrete instructions
  • Teach them and develop their problem-solving skills
  • Highlight keywords, concepts, and phrases
  • Fact charts, flashcards are some aids that can help with better retaining and memory
  • Metacognitive skills like self-examination and self-assessing are very important.
  • Creating flow charts and giving step-by-step instructions can go a long way in helping them out.
  • Encouraging them to ask stimulating questions. Giving graph papers for co-ordinates, number lines for the concept of positive and negative numbers are useful.
  • Last but not the least, spare a good amount of extra time with kids with this disability and help them out.

So these are some of the steps that can help tackle dyscalculia. However, in some cases, help might be required. This is a life-long condition. Hence providing all the needed help to tackle is good. Managing this during childhood proves useful to some extent in adulthood.

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Dr Kavitha M

I am an undergraduate degree holder in dentistry. I have a great interest in music and reading. I am a linguaphile. My areas of interest lie in psychology, medical imaging, diagnostics, and oncology. I am a person who focuses more on the emerging areas of forensics.


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