Dyscalculia is a mathematical learning disorder caused by an organic condition of the brain. About 7% of children have dyscalculia with different degrees of difficulty in performing arithmetic calculations.
Having difficulties with numbers is common among children. Furthermore, we may find that in certain lessons, dyscalculic children have an outstanding performance, especially in non-mathematical topics.
Let’s talk about Physics. Physics is a part of the broad category of science that deals with the structure of matter and its fundamental constituents. And It involves a lot of arithmetic calculations.
Physics is a broad subject. Learning physics involves varied skills and concepts such as logical sequencing and spatial thinking. A child integrates different concepts and ideas to solve problems in this subject and forms his own analytical strategies in the process. To function well in physics, many skills have to function together.
The important question is could children with dyscalculia get better at physics. And if they can, how could we support them?
Understanding differences in children
Success in Physics could be difficult to describe. Each child is different. They have their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Failing to recognize these differences may deprive children of their enthusiasm. Because of this, they may begin to dislike the subject or lose interest.
Most children get discouraged around physics because of their individual differences in relation to mastering the concepts and skills of the subject. Their difficulties in the subject may not be because of their lack of preparation or because teachers and parents have left something undone. Their difficulties in learning may just be a reflection of their inappropriate methods of learning physics, which may persist through later years unless we intervene and provide help on their weak components.
Poor health, difficulties at home play as much role in performing in a subject as opting for ineffective methods and missing vital lessons of physics. Avoiding these differences in the early years of their development may cause unpleasant experiences and affect their quality of life.
The idea is to find their difficulties around the subject as soon as possible and provide appropriate help before it impacts their morale. Let’s understand some possible factors that could act as obstacles to learning in physics.
Factors affecting learning physics
A child that has difficulties in math lessons may develop a fear of subjects involving maths such as Physics. This may dampen self-esteem and affect several aspects of their life.
There may be many alarming signs like general difficulty or anxiety around math, malfunctioned directional awareness or inability to estimate number quantities, or having reading difficulties with word problems.
1. Anxiety around math
It’s a common occurrence among dyscalculic children to dread mathematics. They could be afraid that they might not understand a topic or lesson. Difficulties in understanding the relevant concepts and skills may make them hate math and the subjects that include math, like physics, at a very early age.
A mismatch between instructional methods and their preferred techniques to learn may further increase their anxiety about math. We could tackle this by using additional material and concrete instructions to help them build confidence around the subject.
We handheld them through important concepts like times tables, reading time, and making simple bonds. Each lesson should be individually tailored as per their need. Over time, this could act as a bedstone for more complex concepts.
As parents and teachers, we need to support the children through their difficulties until they find their foot in the door. Making them more confident around the subject and related concepts could be the right place to start.
2. Memory difficulties
Having a sound memory seems to play a key role in physics, as the subject requires memorizing equations and rules to solve secondary problems.
Especially for kids with learning differences, it’s better to lay out what needs to be done next, to work through a science problem. Generally, that requires memorizing patterns and sequences of different kinds.
We could teach visual and mental skills to help children improve their memory because a good memory that could hold facts and formulas is essential to find a pattern between similar problems.
A bad perspective memory directly impacts a child’s ability in physics. For example, a dyscalculic child may prefer receiving information in small chunks to ensure their memory is not overloaded.
3. Difficulties in reading word problems
Reading mathematical text is often a task for a child with dyscalculia. Physics has several word problems that require correct decoding, without which it is difficult to arrive at an accurate answer.
In most cases, wrong interpretation is the issue instead of not being able to read the text itself. For example, a child may get confused between the relevance of the speed of water and the speed of wind while calculating the speed of a motorboat.
Speed reading doesn’t help either and may result in a wrong interpretation of the original problem. Children with directional difficulties may also face a similar problem and find it hard to notice other elements of the problem like vertical tables, drawings, pie charts, etc.
Having good reading skills is usually necessary for all curricular subjects, let alone physics.
Learning physics with dyscalculia
Physics generally requires more relational and spatial thinking than basic arithmetic. Classes on physics even allow calculators. There are more ways to support our children with physics than we think.
Let’s try to learn about a few strategies and concepts, including Metacognition, and how they can help dyscalculic children with physics.
1. Introducing Metacognition
Metacognition is thinking about thinking. It is quite a technical-sounding word for something we all do to understand our thoughts and feelings.
That said, few things are more enjoyable than teaching our children how to be resilient. No matter what difficulty arises, we want them to be equipped with a drive that says, “how can I solve this?”
It’s quite tempting to give up during a physics exam and feel like nothing could help us overcome the obstacles. However, the application of Metacognition could help fix the mistakes children are frequently making.
Getting better in physics, especially the parts that involve math, could greatly benefit from questioning. Being curious about why things happen the way they happen can provide a lot of opportunities to think. And by practicing thinking while engaging in the subject we could promote metacognition in children.
Under Metacognition, we could teach children with dyscalculia about math fluency. Math fluency is very much like reading fluency where they could use shortcuts to arrive at a solution. It frees up a child’s brain and uses that free space for high-order problems. We could also use repetition to promote math fluency through additional practice in all their physics-related lessons.
Encouraging children to use metacognition can certainly help children in their journey to get better in physics and other math-related subjects.
2. Supplement Instructions on Physics
Additional instructions, apart from the existing material, should be provided to balance out our approach to better grasp the subject. While we assume a proactive role in children’s education, we need to be careful to not add to their frustration. Extra material should be introduced as per their need without challenging them beyond their capacity. We need to work with them in small bursts of time, ideally every day instead of one long session on the weekend.
Getting better at physics starts by introducing children to activities that combine their innate skills with the subject. Flashcards, repetition series, math games, puzzles; all could be used to push children towards a better understanding of basic concepts.
Worksheets with basic physics involving word problems, equation formation, and concept evaluation can be one of the many sources on the internet to promote fluency. Encourage children to complete one worksheet a day in the beginning and then balance the problems with their current capabilities. Ensure to challenge them as per their skill range. And gradually build upon their current skill set so one day they could find themselves solving problems with greater ease. Maybe even without our help.
3. Develop a healthy relationship with children
Children struggling in physics would require attention. Initially, one-to-one teaching could act as a powerful support system. If a child trusts you, they would be able to open up about their anxiety. A discussion may help them more than a set of instructions to find a way through their difficulties.
Developing a healthy relationship creates an easy atmosphere for both teaching and learning. It could encourage children to reveal what methods are working for them without fearing ridicule from other children.
Any kind of progress mandates a healthy relationship between a teacher and child. This is no different.
How to help children with their physics homework?
As a teacher or a parent, we are our children’s study partners. Reinforcing physics concepts and teaching them is a paramount part of providing support to them.
However, if we find ourselves in a difficult situation where our children are not able to understand certain parts of the assignments, make a switch to the parts that are easier for them.
Handheld them through the assignment and note down the list of topics where the child is struggling and ensure to communicate it with their teachers or parents.
1. Positive Inputs
Homework experience must be enjoyable to children irrespective of their areas of difficulty. If they enjoy it, they would regularly return to it. A child must be regularly encouraged to include more tricks in his bag of tools. Do everything in your power to exclude the negative feeling that may develop through not getting good at a subject. Consistency is what makes the difference between the children who improve and those who don’t.
2. Focus on clarity of concepts
Homeworks, usually, is the repetition of previously taught topics. Physics homework is no different than a practice to review the concepts at home. Before beginning to help them with their homework, evaluate if they understand the concepts behind their assignments. Help them clear their basic doubts before diving into secondary concepts since it’s possible that the child might be unaware of the concepts in the assignment.
3. Challenge vs capacity
Often, there are assignments from school which may exceed the child’s skill set. When you find your children in that situation, step back and find something within the assignment that’s reasonable to their capacity. Doing that may mean working the entire time on one basic problem. And that’s okay. We should give enough time to our children to master new skills and concepts. Hurrying through them does no good.
Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci were dyslexic. Albert Einstein couldn’t read until the age of nine. History is filled with such figures who have proved themselves in their field in spite of having a disability.
The degree of severity of dyscalculia; serious, moderate, or mild can decide how we could treat or deal with the learning difficulties of children and support them to become good in physics.
Einstein became great in spite of his learning disability. Most have not achieved without a learning disorder what Einstein could.
What matters the most is having a screening procedure for dyscalculia in place. Earlier assessment of dyscalculia is the most efficient way to diagnose it.
What we understand is that classical arithmetic is just a part of physics. Even at the places where it is necessary, children could always use existing techniques to simplify the calculations.
As a parent and teacher, there are many options you can opt for to minimize the damaging impacts of dyscalculia on your children. Through precautions and proactive participation in your children’s development, you could cultivate a math culture at home or at school to help your child jump-start on subjects like physics.
Dyscalculia is a roadblock that children can push farther down the road with determination and appropriate support from their parents and teachers. With the right kind of intervention, we could turn the brain activity more normal by activating relevant parts of the reading brain.
Through additional support based on children’s specific needs, you could boost their skills around math-based subjects.
There is nothing a determined child with a support system can’t overcome.
An engineer, Maths expert, Online Tutor and animal rights activist. In more than 5+ years of my online teaching experience, I closely worked with many students struggling with dyscalculia and dyslexia. With the years passing, I learned that not much effort being put into the awareness of this learning disorder. Students with dyscalculia often misunderstood for having just a simple math fear. This is still an underresearched and understudied subject. I am also the founder of Smartynote -‘The notepad app for dyslexia’,