Anxiety vs. Dyscalculia

Math Anxiety vs. Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia Is Not when a student performs poorly in math due to an irrational fear of math or numbers; or because they fell behind in math and never caught up, due to missing school from a prolonged illness or other situation. Disliking math or avoiding the effort involved to become competent in math, does not make one math disabled. A Specific Learning Disorder in Math is not caused by environmental factors like poor teaching, bad instructional materials, emotional trauma, or social forces that justify poor math achievement (girls are bad at math, I’m not a math brain).

Causes of Dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is researched all over the world and the causes of chronic underachievement in math have been attributed to the following: a lack of electrical activity in the math processing center of the brain; a smaller math specialty area with abnormal neurons; impaired ability to see and judge amounts; impaired visual-spatial-directional-sequential perception, processing and memory; impaired operational sequencing; impaired working memory for digits; and retrieval difficulties.

Tutoring. Because dyscalculia is caused by brain inefficiencies, it cannot be overcome by trying harder, putting in more time, or normal tutoring. Extra help is usually frustrating and unproductive, because it is just more of the same instruction, and fails to address the underlying causes of difficulty.

Math Anxiety. The dyscalculic experiences mental static when facing tasks that exceed cognitive thresholds. When the mental load is exceeded, the student is unable to consider, process, or retrieve information, yet is aware of expectations. The student tears up, unable to reconcile the disparity between demand and ability. Teachers often call this, “math anxiety,” and erroneously believe that if the student relaxes, they can perform adequately. Math anxiety is a symptom, not a cause of dyscalculia.

Dyscalculics will experience a normal response to unproductive, frustrating math work. The brain naturally conserves energy, and shuts down, to avoid the trauma historically experienced with math tasks. This anxiety or panic response is a result of the brain’s inability to perform as expected. It is a post-traumatic-stress response, not the cause of the student’s inability to process quantitative information.

Impact of Dyscalculia. The dyscalculic makes frequent “careless mistakes,” is easily confused and frustrated, frequently forgets and must relearn before advancing, gets lost easily in places and in math problems, and has trouble remembering numbers like prices, money, locker combinations, times and dates, room numbers, addresses, phone numbers, and birthdays. The dyscalculic may still count with fingers and will avoid math calculations, never confident of the money required for purchases or change due, or how to figure totals, discounts, tax, or tips. They will usually struggle to interpret math vocabulary left-right, before-after, numerator-denominator, sum-product, former-latter, BC-AD, first century, etc. 

Signs of Dyscalculia. Dyscalculics lose track when counting; have trouble memorizing and recalling addition and multiplication facts, math procedures, and rules, and do poorly on tests. They are quickly overwhelmed by the volume of facts and procedures and are distressed by the daunting visual-spatial-directional-sequential demands of arithmetic. They have a shallow and insufficient understanding of the base ten system, place value, decimals, and fractions. They wrestle to visualize and to detect subtle details in visual information and touch information. They struggle to consider quantitative information about time, speed, distance, size, weight, and area. They grapple with visual-spatial relationships, navigation, maps, directions, scheduling, and organization. They make unconscious number errors when reading, thinking, talking, copying, listening, and writing.