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Saturday, 1 March 2014

Fear of Maths or Dyscalculia?

Fear of maths or Dyscalculia is for some of the pupils in our classes a real problem that causes anxiety, fear and is hugely embarrassing for older pupils.

So What is Dyscalculia? According to The National Centre for Learning Disabilities - 'Dyscalculia refers to a wide range of lifelong learning disabilities involving math. There is no single type of math disability. Dyscalculia can vary from person to person. And, it can affect people differently at different stages of life.'

Children with dyscalculia have trouble reading numbers and picturing them in their mind. For example, they might mistake a three for an eight because the numbers look similar. They also have trouble counting objects and organising them by size. Memory is another issue. Children with dyscalculia may not remember the correct order of operations to follow in solving maths problems. Difficulties like these can lead to a lifelong fear of mathematics. Of course, just because people have trouble with maths does not necessarily mean they have dyscalculia. But experts say parents and teachers may begin to suspect a problem if a child is good at speaking, reading and writing but slow to develop math skills.

Professor David Sheffield of Derby University's Centre for Psychological Research, who is one of the country's leading specialists in maths anxiety, believe it has a lifelong effect. So what would he advise? "The first thing to say is don't do more maths. More maths is unlikely to work because it's actually an anxiety problem. Try to deal with the anxiety with simple approaches like relaxation or breathing exercises. We did one study where we got people to do a relaxation exercise and then followed them up. Their anxiety scores had dropped and they were able to solve more problems."

As a teacher and Numeracy co ordinator I have had experience of pupils displaying signs of Dyscalculia, and have been frustrated by  the lack of information out there and therefore the ways in which to advise pupils, parents and teachers. A simple 'Google' search into the topic is a bit of a minefield, full of offers for online diagnostic tests, which worry me, and forums full of doom and gloom from young adults trying to manage their maths difficulties. As a professional it is worrying but for parents it must be dreadful. The main theme from site to site is that research into Dyscalculia is in its infancy.

So how can we help now? From my own research and experiencing I take a several pronged approach:

1. Dealing with Anxiety -  

Affirmations or positive statements to counteract stress. Teach pupils to take a break and say, “I am calm. I am relaxed. I am peaceful. I am happy. I am safe.” Write a positive statement and have them carry it in their pocket for the day. Put a list in the back of their school notebook for them to access at any time.

Create visualizations – imagining can be both fun and effective. Create a happy thought that children can “go to” when stressed or worried. Develop a short story or scene that they can think of when they are fearful or anxious.. Go for a calming ride on a cloud or float in a bubble. Slide down a rainbow and encourage them to create their own relaxing story.

Practice controlled breathing. Taking slow deep breaths can help lower a child’s anxiety and anger. All children can benefit from this important powerful stress and anger management technique. Children with ASD and ADHD, can learn to bring their energy level down a notch and feel in charge of themselves. Children can use breathing when they feel over-stimulated or on a verge of a temper tantrum, have them focus on their breathing and soothe themselves.  Breathe in 2,3,4 and out 2,3,4. In 2,3,4 and out 2,3,4.

2.  Focus on understanding the key mathematical concepts

Allow pupils that have a 'fear of maths' or you suspect have Dyscalculia to practice, practice, practice the key concepts of maths such a number bonds, one more, one less. Use concrete materials to help link mathematical symbols to quantity. Start at a level which the child is comfortable at, so that they experience some success, and slowly move to more difficult area.  Ask a lot of questions to get the child engaged and thinking about their own thinking. Reinforce the language of maths as this is often an area they struggle to remember,, give them the key mathematical language and get the to make a colourful poster for display in class/at home.

3. Provide a maths 'toolkit' 

Having access to a 'toolkit' reduces stress and provides that 'crutch' to support them during independent activities. This could include:  multi link cubes, 100 square, times table square, various numberlines etc.

4. Make learning as active and fun as possible 

Key stage 1 staff  teach lots of their key maths concepts through practical activities, exploration and songs. This is non threatening and allows pupils to learn in their own way and at their own pace. This type of learning is ideal for pupils with a 'fear' of maths and indeed pupils of all ages actually enjoy active learning so it is a good idea to have active learning on you general teaching toolkit.

5. Provide lots of time for learning new concepts

Introducing new concepts is clearly necessary but needs to be approached realistically Pupils with a fear of maths will need lots of time to explore and absorb new concepts so try to be patient.

6. Build Confidence

All children and indeed adults, like to be told they have done a good job. For pupils with a fear of maths this is hugely important, they think they' can't do it' so it is vitally important that they are given the opportunity to succeed. Try to discover what they are better at in maths, it might be 3d shape or co ordinates but whatever it is 'big them up' reward them, allow them to succeed.

Good luck and remember if it is frustrating for us as the teacher when a pupil forgets something they were able to do the day before, cannot do even basic things like number bonds then imagine what it is like for them. As the saying goes: