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Getting a child to solve everyday maths problems can help them overcome problems learning mathematical concepts. Photo: Alamy

How to help children avoid panicking over maths problems and give them support

Many children find learning and applying maths difficult. A dyslexic child is bound to have trouble with word problems in maths, but there are ways for them to overcome this


My Year Six daughter finds maths really hard and especially panics when attempting word problems, a Hong Kong parent writes. She is dyslexic and gets extra support with reading and writing but not maths. Should I question this?

Links between dyslexia and difficulties with maths are well established. Recent research has shown that maths dyscalculia – a term describing students who consistently have problems learning maths – is hugely under-diagnosed. Given that all children occasionally have trouble with maths, the signs are not always easy to spot. Negative reactions to everyday activities related to maths, such as getting frustrated and confused when playing board games, can be a sign.

A Hong Kong mother worries her son’s maths lessons are too much fun

Furthermore, 100 times more pupils are diagnosed with dyslexia than dyscalculia; girls are more likely to slip through the net, as their general performance and levels of behaviour are higher than those of boys.

It is not surprising that your daughter struggles with maths. Even if a dyslexic child is competent with number computation, the way their brain processes language and information is likely to make word problems and the application of mathematical concepts very challenging.

It is not surprising that a dyslexic child will also have trouble with maths. Photo: Alamy

In addition, dyslexic students often have short- and long-term memory issues, making the retention of maths concepts and rote learning of times tables difficult. The complexities and inconsistencies of maths rules can be particularly confusing.

Around 80 per cent of students with dyscalculia have other difficulties, such as dyslexia and speech or language problems. However, special needs departments in schools sometimes assign only one label to a child, which can lead to maths being sidelined when children need support in other areas of the curriculum. The limitations of diagnosis, and finite human resources, may result in a lack of special educational maths plans for pupils like your daughter.

By all means make your concerns about the lack of maths help for your daughter known to her teacher. Continued support with reading and comprehension should help her when tackling maths word problems, but specific support with maths would give her repeated practice and reinforce the concepts taught in class. This would help to build the confidence that is key to success.

Children who suffer dyscalculia – persistent trouble learning mathematical concepts – often go undiagnosed. Photo: Alamy

Be proactive in asking questions about how you can support her with homework and everyday maths to aid her learning and awareness. Encourage your daughter to use estimation and mental arithmetic as often as possible. Handling money is always a good incentive for children to use maths skills.

There are many positive strategies that teachers and parents can use to help children with problem solving. Reading problems aloud and highlighting key words helps the brain make sense of the information. Visual prompts often boost speed and confidence. For example, have a list of strategies available and a small whiteboard on hand to write down workings. Other prompts such as times table charts and hundred squares are useful, as well as 3D shapes and the traditional Dienes blocks often found in classrooms.

Some children, like your daughter, feel sheer panic when they first see a maths problem. Providing help and encouragement at the start can avoid the mental blocks that cause her to lose confidence and develop a negative mindset.

If your child is not getting the help she needs overcoming problems learning maths, ask her teacher for support and suggestions for how you can help. Photo: Alamy

Giving students like your daughter more thinking and processing time can also help. Bearing in mind that children have different learning styles, clear modelling of mathematical methods and strategies by the teacher is crucial.

Increasingly, schools encourages pupils to be risk takers when tackling maths problems, to help them overcome fear of making mistakes and see errors as learning opportunities rather than failure. Students are encouraged to “have a go”, learn through trial and error and make several attempts before finding the right strategy to solve a problem.

Although maths is now more relevant and fun in school, with an emphasis on real-life problem solving, it is also more challenging. Focusing on practical maths will teach your daughter to think in different ways, and give her a deeper understanding of it.

Encourage her to have a positive approach, and see maths as a challenge rather than a problem.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary-school teacher