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Homeschooling with Dyscalculia: What You Need to Know | An Interview with Faith Berens

November 13–17, 2017   |   Vol. 132, Week 10

Dyscalculia can be frustrating for both parent and student—but don’t give up! Today on Homeschool Heartbeat, special needs consultant Faith Berens explains how she was given the tools to overcome this learning challenge.

In this podcast, you’ll learn:

  • How a label can actually offer freedom
  • What life with dyscalculia looks like
  • How to help a child with dyscalculia
  • Choosing curriculum for dyscalculia
  • How to understand your student—and help him understand himself

“God has uniquely designed [children with dyscalculia], and with His help and with their parents’ support, they can accomplish great things.” — Faith Berens

(This is the third in a three-part series on homeschooling children with specific learning disabilities. Click here to listen to our program on dyslexia, and here to listen to our program on dysgraphia.)

This Week’s Offer

Are you homeschooling a struggling learner or a child with special needs? In this free booklet, HSLDA’s special needs consultants provide answers about evaluating your student, crafting an education plan, finding support, and more. Follow the link to request your free copy!

Dyscalculia is not as well-known as dyslexia or dysgraphia, but it can be just as hard for children who suffer from it. This week on Homeschool Heartbeat, get an inside look at life with dyscalculia—and hear strategies for helping your child work through this learning struggle.

Diane Kummer: I’m joined today by my colleague Faith Berens. She’s a homeschooling mom of two and a Special Needs Consultant here at HSLDA. Faith has a master’s degree in reading and has over 15 years of teaching experience in a variety of contexts. Faith, it’s great to have you on the program!

Faith Berens: Thank you Diane, I’m very happy to be here today.

When labels offer freedom [0:47]

Diane: Faith, can you briefly explain what dyscalculia is?

Faith: Sure, Diane! Sometimes, people will refer to dyscalculia as the math version of dyslexia. That’s a simplistic term or way to think about it. It is often referred to as math learning disability or a specific learning disability in mathematics or even a mathematics disorder. And often students with this specific type of learning difference also have underlying slow processing speed or difficulty with working memory.

Diane: When did you first find out that you had dyscalculia and what was that discovery like?

Faith: Well, I had struggled all through school—elementary school, particularly. I was pulled out for special math group instruction. But it wasn’t until my undergrad college years: I went to the special student services department to seek some academic support and some tutoring, and I was diagnosed with dyscalculia.

And when I received that diagnosis, it actually brought such relief to me, because I had struggled forever. I felt plagued with this thing that I couldn’t put a name on. I didn’t understand why math was so hard for me. I didn’t understand why I struggled to learn for years and years. So when I was finally given that diagnosis or that label, it was very freeing to me and I felt a release and I felt that that label, or that diagnosis, was a replacement for the lies and the other labels that I had put on myself, such as “I’m stupid,” or “I’m not as good as at math as so-and-so,” or “I’m unable,” or “I’m never going to be able to do this,” or “never going to be able to understand this.” So it was very freeing for me.

Life with dyscalculia [2:44]

Diane: Faith, how did your dyscalculia affect you as a child?

Faith: I struggled all through school. I remember just having such difficulty with learning and mastering math facts, memory, retention. I couldn’t conceptualize. I would look at numbers and it was like my eyes would just glaze over. I would look at numbers, and it didn’t turn into a picture. In education we call that a Gestalt: when people read, we make pictures in their minds, we make movies in our minds of the words coming to life. And I had no trouble with words, but when I looked at numbers, it didn’t conceptualize. It literally did not compute; it didn’t turn into a picture for me.

I also struggled with visual-spatial skills and just difficulty with basic number sense—understanding quantities and fractions.

Diane: Are you still affected by dyscalculia today?

Faith: I am. It’s not as bad as it used to be. It drives my husband crazy, for instance, when we are trying to rearrange furniture in the house. I really have a hard time picturing how things will turn and fit or not fit in a space—those are those visual-spatial skills that are weak. Difficulty with money management—oh my goodness! That’s why my husband is the accountant in our family—but I have gotten better, and I can certainly balance my checkbook.

Needless to say: yes, I do still struggle with math today. If you were to give me a spreadsheet with numbers, graphs, and charts—for instance, in the workplace—it just takes me more time to think about those concepts. And don’t ask me to keep score when we’re playing corn hole at home, okay!

The light bulb [4:28]

Diane: Faith, when you were a student, how did your parents and teachers help you get past the learning difficulties you had because of your dyscalculia?

Faith: Well, I want to share a little vignette from third grade. My third grade teacher was one of my favorite teachers, and I’ll never forget the day she brought out popsicle sticks for me. The light bulb literally went off in my head with place value, borrowing, and regrouping.

Up until that point, it had all been pencil and paper and rote, and I literally could not conceptualize why we were doing what we were doing—it was just learning by rote. I knew you crossed out the number, you put that over here, and I learned the rote process, but I didn’t understand the why behind it.

So that was one instance where a teacher helped me by just getting things that were very visual, very hands-on.

My mom was a single working parent, and so she helped me as best as she could with my homework. She did get me a really great tutor. He had worked at a day school for students with various struggles. And he was relentless but patient and kind. He was so encouraging! And without him I never would have made it through Algebra 1, [Algebra] 2, or geometry—which I absolutely needed for university.

Choosing curriculum for dyscalculia [5:43]

Diane: Faith, what are the biggest struggles that parents who homeschool a child with dyscalculia face?

Faith: I think that oftentimes teaching is not only frustrating for the student, [but] it can also be really frustrating for the parent—particularly if math comes easy for the teacher-parent, it is often hard for the parent to empathize or understand: “Why don’t you get this? What is so hard to see about this concept? We have gone over and over and over this. Why can’t you retain these math facts?” It can be discouraging, not only for the student, but also for the parent.

And when our children are struggling and we are their primary teacher, I think we take that as a reflection on ourselves. Sometimes we think, “Perhaps I am not able to teach this child, perhaps I am coming about this the wrong way, or maybe I need to try a different curriculum.” And then fears and doubts creep in.

Diane: So what practical steps can these parents take to help their children thrive despite their learning difficulties?

Faith: Well one, I encourage parents to educate themselves about dyscalculia. They really are the experts when it comes to their children, but they also need to be an expert in that specific learning disability. So Dyscalculia.org is a great website, and Understood.org.

Secondly, they need to select a math curriculum that is multi-sensory (so it addresses auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile). And that program needs to be systematic, sequential, and explicit.

They should keep lessons short and succinct. Give plenty of review and repetition/practice so that the student can get the steps in the process, the facts, the terms, so that they can become more fluent and automatic with their work.

And they shouldn’t fear giving accommodations for the student, such as allow extra time. Please do not do timed drills, as this only leads to more frustration and anxiety for students with a math learning disability. And allow student to use a calculator or a reference sheet.

You also may consider doing some type of cognitive therapy program that would address underlying cognitive skills such as processing speed and memory, because the brain can be strengthened and we can grow in those areas.

Understanding your student [8:06]

Diane: Faith, as you homeschool your children through their own learning struggles, have you found that dealing with your dyscalculia has helped you relate to them better—and if so, how?

Faith: Absolutely. It’s definitely helped me to recognize early on. I notice things with my own kids much earlier than I think maybe other parents would, simply because I had lived it, I had walked that walk. I think it helps me to have compassion and to understand students that I work with or tutor, or as I’m helping parents that are helping their own students, because I understand and I want these kids to understand that despite the fact that they have these weaknesses, we all do have weaknesses. God has equipped them and uniquely designed them, and with His help and with their parents’ support, they can accomplish great things and they can work to overcome their challenges.

Diane: That’s great insight, Faith. Can you recommend some helpful resources for parents of children with dyscalculia?

Faith: Absolutely! Ronit Bird is a leading expert in the field of dyscalculia, and she has wonderful resources, games, and teaching books on her website, which is RonitBird.com. And some curricula that I really recommend for students with dyscalculia include Shiller Math, Math-U-See, [and] Math on the Level. And I also like the website the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. They have some wonderful resources, articles, and a section for teens and students who struggle, so they can come to understand themselves as learners.

Diane: Those are great ideas and valuable resources for homeschool parents. Faith, your own experience with dyscalculia has enabled you to help so many others. We’re so grateful for you. Thanks for tuning in, everyone. I’m Diane Kummer, and I’m cheering you on.

Faith BerensPhoto of Faith Berens

Faith Berens lives in Fauquier County, VA, with her husband Matthew, daughter Hailey, and son Hayden. Faith joined the HSLDA team of special needs consultants in 2008 and homeschools her children. She also works as a private educational consultant and evaluator. Some of her passions include reading for pleasure, singing, traveling, nature/science, leading Bible studies, and teaching reading to struggling students. Faith holds a master’s degree in reading from Shenandoah University. She has over 15 years of teaching experience that includes serving as a classroom teacher in public and private Christian schools, Reading Recovery® teacher, reading specialist, NILD educational therapist, home educator, co-op instructor, and tutor. Her areas of expertise are early childhood literacy, reading assessment, and the identification and remediation of reading difficulties and disabilities.

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