Types of Math Learning Difficulties

Instructor: Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

Many learning difficulties can affect a student's mathematical abilities, but there is only one disability specific to math learning. In this lesson, you'll learn about dyscalculia, its warning signs and other related learning disorders.

Math Learning Difficulties

While there are a few general learning difficulties/disabilities that can impact mathematical performance, there is really only one identified math-specific learning disability. This disability is called dyscalculia (pronounced dis-kal-kyoo-lee-uh) and refers to several areas of difficulty with specific mathematical concepts and calculations.

As well as a discussion of what dyscalculia is and a list of warning signs for the disability, this lesson reviews some of the learning difficulties that are often found in conjunction with and/or are misdiagnosed as dyscalculia.

Warning Signs of Dyscalculia

As many as 7% of elementary students have math-related difficulties reaching the level of dyscalculia. It is not as familiar as some of the other learning disabilities that we've known about for many decades, like dyslexia. Dyscalculia has some similarities to other commonly known learning difficulties/disorders, but when all of its symptoms are considered together, they describe a unique and distinct learning difficulty related directly to math and math-related skills.

Warning signs of dyscalculia are specific to different age groups. Because our understanding of it is relatively new, many older students have suffered with this difficulty for years. It is important to understand the signs of dyscalculia at all ages so that struggling students can be identified and supported.

Young Students

When young students struggle with all forms of numeracy, including counting, assigning number values to groups, recognizing numbers and applying number facts, this can indicate that dyscalculia is a concern. Students may struggle with finding or identifying patterns and shapes as well. All students deal with mathematical concepts differently, but if you have a very young student struggling longer and harder with the most elementary of numeracy rules and facts, you may want to assess the student for dyscalculia.

Late Elementary and Middle School Students

As students age, numeracy rules change and become more complex. These students may have achieved basic numeracy skills in their younger years, but may struggle greatly with certain math skills in later years. One sign of dyscalculia is having difficulty recognizing and remembering rules for mathematical symbols, such as forgetting that a plus sign means to add. Noticeably frequent transposition, removal, substitution or addition of numerals when saying or rewriting numbers is another key sign of dyscalculia. Students who may be at risk will often continue to count on their fingers, even if they are well past the age that this is to be expected.

Additionally, students that struggle with spatial concepts such as map making and following may also be at risk for dyscalculia. Understanding of the spatial concepts of left and right along with geometric shapes can also be very difficult for students with dyscalculia.

You may see these students struggling to remember their own phone numbers or addresses. They often struggle with telling time. These students also tend to avoid games that require mathematical skills for success, like Monopoly. Watch for avoidance signals to help identify students at risk.

High School Students and Adults

The ability to apply mathematical concepts in real-world scenarios is the goal of learning math in school. Students who have dyscalculia have an inordinate amount of trouble with this application process. They may have finally mastered the ability to complete mathematical calculations in the classroom, but the new step of applying these concepts in context is a real struggle.

Common signs that indicate a student may be struggling with dyscalculia are a reluctance to cook (following a recipe is hard due to the measuring requirements), take solo trips (due to difficulty reading maps and time tables for buses, etc.), playing sports (due to spatial estimation struggles) and using problem-solving skills to brainstorm multiple ideas for the same task.

Common Misdiagnoses

Other learning disabilities can exist at the same time as or be mistaken as dyscalculia.


The most common of these disorders is dyslexia. Dyslexia is a disorder that sees a child reversing, transposing, adding or substituting characters into items being read or worked with in other ways, such as rewriting or translating. A prominent warning sign of dyscalculia is a dyslexic approach to numbers.

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