Some of the young children we work with can struggle to understand number even with all of the hands on preparation in Casa. Depending on where you live you might get a child assessed for dyscalculia and specific guidance given. I have met a few children who struggle with clear motor movements and have difficulties remembering maths facts, holding numbers in their heads and find it difficult to use precise motor movements to use their fingers or beads to count. For these children their struggle to recall maths facts number work becomes stressful and when the children use elementary materials the beads and bead bars are small, difficult to work with and add another layer of difficulty. Montessori materials assume children have a solid Casa foundation and are dexterous and ready for a challenge and most children are. But what for those children who will go on to fit the diagnosis of ‘dyscalculia’ or a Specific mathematical Learning Disability.
“Dyscalculia is an inability to conceptualise numbers, number relationships (arithmetical facts) and the outcomes of numerical operations (estimating the answer to numerical problems before actually calculating)” (Mahesh Sharma). This definition of dyscalculia emphasises a difficulty with the conceptualisation of mathematics rather than simply confusing the numerical operations, getting the wrong answer or forgetting taught facts.
Dyscalculia is like Dyslexia but with numbers instead of words, more practice of the same type is unlikely to help and will probably frustrate the child, lowering their self-confidence and resulting in them being ‘put off’ maths. Large Casa materials become developmentally inappropriate as the child is older, they seem ‘babyish’, clumsy and if they did not help the child when they are younger are not likely to now. The important response to a Specific Learning Difficulty is to keep a child confident, engaged and positive about their ability to learn. We also need to minimise our own frustrations as teachers and parents, so invest in some self care too.
The British Dyslexia Association Website is a very useful place if you are seeking a definition of dyscalculia, see their website for details. A Numicon presentation is also available. Lastly, although an Educational Psychologist or similarly trained professional is needed to diagnose dyscalculia for medical and legal purposes many online assessment tools exist, you could try this one.
But the immediate question is – what to do??
This year I will be trying a resource called Numicon. Numicon can be used with any child, but in the Montessori classroom, I see it as having a particularly useful role for children with suspected or confirmed additional learning needs. Numicon follows Montessori principals of making abstract concepts concrete, the resources are manipulable and Numicon presents Mathematics as a way of seeing the relationships between numbers, also pattern, geometry and beauty are emphasised in the material. The materials help to give children with extra difficulties experiences of using numbers and present many strategies for handling number. Over time a child with difficulties with numbers might find a strategy which works for them and be increasingly able and confident at handling abstract numbers. Just as dyslexic children come to find strategies to enable them to handle words.
It isn’t unusual that I am finding children who struggle to work with maths facts in the abstract also struggle to use common strategies. In the Numicon presentation on dyslexia the following assertion is made, 50% of children with dyscalculia have dyslexia, 30% of children with dyscalculia have ADHD and many children with dyscalculia also have dyspraxia and/or spatial difficulties (proprioceptive difficulties, if this is new to you too, no worries). Also, remember that children with a Specific Learning Difficult in one area have unusual brains, they may well be gifted and talented at other even similar tasks, for example, a child with dyscalculia may be able to produce the most amazing geometric patterns, they can be very able at using patterns in some ways and not others.
A child already frustrated by difficult work, suffers from anxiety about not being able to develop important skills, has stress in relationships with the teacher and/or carer and possibly social stigma from friends. These difficulties are compounded when we give Montessori materials which may not help because of other difficulties, such as a difficulty understanding the language of a maths question, ADHD where the child has a short concentration span and a need to do, difficulty using Montessori materials which require fine motor skills and spacial difficulties which might make it hard to orientate work, feel fully present when sitting for a long time on a chair, being distracted by noises. I believe that Casa materials will remind children of earlier frustrations and add to their stress, that they don’t understand something meant for younger children and in the classroom may mark out the child to other children as being less intelligent.
This is where the Numicon materials come in. When I showed them to my class before the summer other children were curious about these new beautiful objects and the children who they were for felt that they had some special work. The children who can work in the abstract had a go with the materials, but true to Montessori theory the materials did not engage them for long as we were not using them in a way which met on the able children needs. The children who I thought whorl benefit form them were very interested and selected them spontaneously when they were in the environment.
These videos will let you see how Numicon can be used in at home with parents and carers
You will see that these videos stress the tactile as well as visual senses, using the bag is already a Montessori material in itself stereognostic bag.
I am going to see how this works for the few children in my class who I suspect to be amongst those 5% of any cohort for whom maths does not come easily and have difficulties computing the answers with the usual Montessori materials, their fingers or making dots on paper or any other strategy which comes naturally to other children. Numicon has been used as a school wide approach and for children who are gifted and talented, but unlike most schools we already have beautiful and sophisticated mathematical resources so I will be sticking with these for most children.
I would be very interested to hear from anyone else who is using Numicon in a Montessori setting or trying integrating other materials designed for children with Specific Learning Difficulties in their class, or at home. So send us an email as your work progresses.