I struggled with math throughout my childhood, constantly felt inadequate compared to my peers, and cried in the corner of my classroom often. I wholeheartedly relate to learners who reach their threshold of learning frustration, particularly as it pertains to mathematical conceptualization and automaticity. It was not until I found a method of cognition and technique (visualization) that I was truly able to find meaning and, thus, joy, in math. Learners who face similar struggles as I did, often give up, signaling a need for personalized instruction and, quite possibly, a formal diagnosis of Dyscalculia. Here, I will provide insight into the diagnostic definition, overt and covert symptoms, and effective strategies to help learners find their way towards mathematical confidence and, ultimately, feelings of success.

What is Dyscalculia?

Unfortunately, Dyscalculia is misunderstood and unknown to the general public which is one of the reasons that it goes undetected. So what exactly is Dyscalculia? According to understood.org, “Dyscalculia is a condition that makes it hard to do math and tasks that involve math. It’s not as well known or as understood as dyslexia. But some experts believe it’s just as common. That means an estimated 5 to 10 percent of people might have dyscalculia.”

It was not until I found a method of cognition and technique (visualization) that I was truly able to find meaning and, thus, joy, in math.

What are the symptoms?

As clearly stated on LDA America, “(Dyscalculia) Affects a person’s ability to understand numbers and learn math facts. Individuals with this type of learning disability demonstrate impaired math calculation skills and difficulty understanding numbers and math facts. Dyscalculia is associated with weaknesses in fundamental number representation and processing, which results in difficulties with quantifying sets without counting, using nonverbal processes to complete simple numerical operations, and estimating relative magnitudes of sets. Because these math skills are necessary for higher-level math problem solving, quantitative reasoning is likely impaired for these individuals.”

Common symptoms of Dyscalculia include difficulties with:

  • Seeing how numbers fit together 
  • Counting
  • Calculating 
  • Recalling math facts, like 3 + 2 = 5
  • Using concepts like “less than” 
  • Using symbols like + and – 
  • Telling left from right 
  • Reading a clock 
  • Working with dollars and coins
  • Analyzing numerical data, graphs, charts

If you, as a caregiver and/or educator, would like to learn even more about the symptoms of dyscalculia, please visit either dyscalculia.org or childmind.org.

Unfortunately, Dyscalculia is misunderstood and unknown to the general public which is one of the reasons that it goes undetected.

How can you support learners with Dyscalculia?

There are many studies substantiating the efficacy of multisensory, evidence-based practices in strengthening the underlying foundation and application of mathematical skills thereof. Curriculums such as Making Math Real, Touch Math, and Mathematical Mindset Some of these explicit strategies include, but are not limited to:

  • Manipulatives such as blocks, number lines, and other tools to visualize how to solve math problems 
  • Explicitly develop working memory, concept imagery, growth mindset and self-regulation skills to bolster processing foundation 
  • Advocate for extra time for tests and other tasks that involve math 
  • Allow access to technology like calculators and math apps to help make math easier to navigate
  • Play card, board and virtual learning games to develop problem-solving skills and a positive association to thinking mathematically
  • Incorporate mental math organically into daily conversations when you are having dinner, driving in the car, and so forth

Some learners are unresponsive to the above or make slower progress than one would anticipate. This lack of receptivity is the feedback that you need to reach out to your pediatrician and/or psychologist to explore the possibility of a Dyscalculia diagnosis as well as recommendations for placing them on the path towards their potential. 

There are many layers of processing, executive functioning, and problem-solving skills that equally contribute to and, thus, are involved in one’s ability to reach a level of mathematical independence. We must establish a strong framework for learners to stand upon before expecting them to lean into discomfort and then rise above adversity. It is imperative to keep in mind that math may never be easy for learners like me, but it certainly can become less daunting and more enjoyable with the right strategies and an open mindset in place.

Behind every parent with a child going through a school assessment is a story. It’s never a cut-and-dry process—never a simple request with an instant “assessment granted” response. There is always more that transpires along the path to getting a child evaluated.

The Story Behind the Assessment

I remember the first time someone told me something “wasn’t quite right” with my child. A preschool teacher pulled me aside at pick-up one day and mentioned some things she had noticed about my son. Loud noises bothered him. He was breaking crayons. He hugged the other kids too hard. These observations continued. Every night one of the teachers rattled off a laundry list of “offenses” for the day, causing anxiety for my son and me. I used to dread picking him up—it was stressful, and I wanted nothing more than to hug him and get him home where he could break as many crayons as he wanted to and not feel threatened.

I was offended and angry when a woman told me she thought my son could have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). How dare she suggest something abnormal about my kid. I confided in a couple of friends, sharing my commentary about the nerve she had to approach me as she did. However, my curiosity had been piqued. After a quick google search of SPD and an Amazon Prime Delivery Day later, The Out-of-Sync Child arrived at my home. We found ourselves at our first assessment for SPD soon after–our first school assessment didn’t come for a few more years.

I wanted nothing more than to hug him and get him home where he could break as many crayons as he wanted to and not feel threatened.

The Assessment

We had assessments for SPD, OT, and ADHD more than once before kindergarten. Watching my son go through an evaluation was always a bit unnerving. I often paced around. If available, I’d watch through the observation windows, wondering. I wondered how he was doing. I wondered if he was okay and  how he felt. I wondered if I’d done something wrong. It was agonizing.

The first school assessment he had was a long time coming. I had requested a complete evaluation for a year and a half, and by that time things had gotten pretty rough in the classroom. I remember reviewing a form that was passed to me, simply asking for a signature— seemingly to grant permission for the testing to start. I felt uneasy signing it and asked for a few days to consult with my advocate to go over all of the different areas of testing.

Every State has established its own policies, and many school districts within each State may also have different procedures.—LDA America

In addition to not fully understanding the different components of the assessment plan, I wasn’t present for any part of the testing that occurred in school. This was a blind spot I disliked. Other parents have said they felt the same way—one even stating they wished all sessions had been recorded. As parents and caregivers,we want to be included; the assessment process had many of us feeling the opposite.

Instinctively, we often head online to gather information, which can quell the need to know more. But it can also be confusing. For example, the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), an organization whose mission is to make learning disabilities universally understood, points out the evaluation process and requirements are not universal at all. Fortunately, LDA has links to each state’s local chapter, which can provide parents and caregivers with resources and support in their region.

Although each state’s procedures may be different, for the most part, the same areas are tested, like intelligence, academics, behavior etc. Below are the Seven Basic Areas for Assessment as found in the SELPA (Special Education Local Plan Area—local to California) Assessment & Prior Written Notice.

  • Academic Achievement
  • Health
  • Intellectual Development 
  • Language/Speech Communication Development
  • Perceptual Motor Development
  • Social/Emotional
  • Adaptive/Behavior
  • Post-Secondary Transition

The Results

When I received the assessment results, I was confused. I didn’t understand how to put everything together. The pages seemed endless, and by that point my nerves were shot. The only thing I understood and was able to focus on were the words that said my son qualified for support and accommodations, which upon reading caused sadness, anger, relief, and joy to flood over me. I felt sad to know he’d been struggling more than I was aware of, and angry at the school for pushing my concerns aside for so long. I was relieved knowing I had been right about him requiring more support for his needs, which did not come packaged in a one-size-fits-all desk. And I was happy, so happy, knowing he would finally receive his education in a way that best served him. 


I started to go over the evaluation with my advocate, who acted as my translator, walking me through the verbiage, definitions, scores, and the different tests used (I later found The Arc Minnesota provides a comprehensive list of definitions). She prepared me for what to expect at the IEP the following day and what accommodations we did and didn’t want.

The Path Forward

Now, several years later, I am confronted with emotions anew—mainly fear and anxiety. My son is thriving, and it’s time for a triennial evaluation, but there’s a bit of a catch-22 involved with starting this complete re-assessment. What if he’s doing too well? I fret thinking about losing his current school placement. I wasn’t the only parent who felt this way either—I found myself in a support group joking with other parents about the desire for our children to have a meltdown—to show they still need their current level of support. 


Although I’m anxious waiting for the evaluation results, this time around, I feel more supported and confident that he will continue to learn in the way that best suits him. The past few years have helped me embrace my child’s learning differences. My child is different: he is unique and he thinks and learns differently, and that is worth celebrating. So as we wrap up our triennial evaluation, I bought a cake to do just that.

Conclusion

If you think your child may need an evaluation, (or are waiting on an assessment, and aren’t sure where to begin), I hope the links provided in this article can help you better understand the process, decode the paperwork, request an evaluation, and even direct you to support groups.

About the Author

Kendra Demler

Kendra Demler is a single mom and parent writer living in the Bay Area. Her personal experiences have given her a talent for candidly retelling the good, the bad, and sometimes cringe-worthy adventures in neurodivergent and high-needs parenting. Raising her son as a solo parent has driven her passion for using her voice to spread awareness, increase acceptance, and provide support and resources for families of neurodivergent children.

What is a SPARK Learning Assessment?

Although it can be a scary and confusing process, getting your child evaluated for potential learning differences helps pave a path for their success. An assessment not only gives caregivers and educators a better understanding of the underlying processes that impact learners’ ability and potential, it also sheds light into learners’ strengths, and the actionable steps we can take to positively shift a child’s learning trajectory. Experts generally agree on the importance of assessments, when done correctly. According to understood.org, “Getting an evaluation is the best way to understand your child’s struggles, and how to help.” The value of a learning assessment, when combined with personalized learning recommendations and aligned with matched educational specialists, provides the greatest potential to improve learning outcomes for a child—that’s why we created the SPARK Learning Assessment.

SPARK helps bridge the gap and put learner on the path to their potential

The SPARK Learning Assessment is a whole-child evaluation that gives parents and caregivers insights into their child’s unique learning needs much faster than traditional clinical or classroom evaluations. Typically, while a family waits on a lengthy waitlist to see a psychologist for a full psychoeducational evaluation, a learner may fall further and further behind, experiencing negative results both in terms of academic achievement and feelings of self-worth. We felt it was imperative to create a comprehensive assessment, conducted with urgency, to avoid this dilemma. 

There are many benefits of the SPARK Learning Assessment, including: 

  • Provides a comprehensive learning overview for a child—in as little as two hours.
  • Establishes a cognitive baseline to help get your child on the path to their potential.
  • Gives you a detailed look at your child’s strengths and how they learn best.
  • Delineates differentiated recommendations for areas in need of attention and the impact of their learning in and out of the classroom. 
  • Matches a learner with a personalized instruction plan aligned to their unique strengths and weaknesses.
  • Serves as a tool to educate your child’s team in order to create clear communication amongst all.
Typically, while a family waits on a lengthy waitlist to see a psychologist for a full psychoeducational evaluation, a learner may fall further and further behind, experiencing negative results both in terms of academic achievement and feelings of self-worth.

It’s easy to get a SPARK Assessment set up for your learner. To help you know what to expect, I’ve listed what happens at each step, and given a bit of context as to why each is important to the overall assessment process. 

What is a SPARK Learning Assessment?

  1. Getting Started (with the Caregiver’s Help)
  2. Taking the SPARK Assessment
  3. Caregiver Consultation & Learner’s Instructional Plan
  4. Educational Specialist Matching: Connecting Learners to their Best-fit Specialist
  5. Ongoing Progress Monitoring

Getting Started (with the Caregiver’s Help)

Five dimensions of learning measured by SPARK

There are many types of tests used (and frankly, abused) in academics these days, so it may be helpful to take a momentary step back and start with a simple definition. The Edvocate lays out a basis for using assessments to “gather relevant information about student performance or progress, or to determine student interests to make judgments about their learning process.” This approach to assessments aligns with the Learnfully way of thinking: the goal of the SPARK Learning Assessment is to identify any gaps that exist between a child’s potential and their current performance, and recommend programming that has been proven to develop the right skills and strategies to close the gap. 

To do this, we first need some assistance from the parent or caregiver. We start with a quick phone call with the caregiver (which we call the “intake call”) wherein we gauge the areas impacting a learner’s ability to thrive in all of the various aspects of their learning. During the call, we ask specific questions to uncover a more fully-formed picture of a learner’s unique profile. This profile helps us personalize the evaluation to target a child’s challenge areas. 

After the call, we’ll share the Learnfully Caregiver Survey. We respect and appreciate the perspective of our caregivers, so we ask that they fill out a 10-15 minute survey prior to scheduling the SPARK Learning Assessment. Once submitted, we quickly follow up to schedule the assessment.

The goal of the SPARK Learning Assessment is to identify any gaps that exist between a child’s potential and their current performance, and recommend programming that has been proven to develop the right skills and strategies to close the gap.

Taking the SPARK Learning Assessment

The SPARK Learner Assessment typically takes two one-hour sessions to complete. So that our Assessment Specialists can provide the most accurate appraisal of a learner’s skillset, we schedule the evaluation using all available information provided by the caregivers (like their intake survey, reason for referral, learner’s energy levels, and scheduling needs). On the day(s) of the assessment a battery of measures will be conducted, reflecting the needs of the learner. 

There are five skill components measured as part of the SPARK Assessment:

Emotional & Behavioral: Helps determine any social-emotional factors that can inhibit the learning process, like body regulation, distractibility, endurance, and more.
Cognitive Skills: A baseline that measures a learner’s reasoning, processing, and problem-solving capacity. Those with learning differences and average-to-high IQs often have underdeveloped executive function profiles, resulting in underutilized cognitive abilities.
Executive Functioning Skills: Scores on a set of metacognitive skills used to control abilities and behaviors like attention, organization, planning, and working memory. Understanding a learner’s strengths and weaknesses is crucial to help them consume and process information, facilitating their learning.
Literacy Skills: Measures a learner’s reading and writing skills at grade level. Skills areas tested include decoding, fluency, comprehension, automaticity, and more.
Math Skills: Measures a learner’s math skills at grade level, based on abilities in computation, problem solving, story problems, and conceptual understanding.

Caregiver Consultation & Learner’s Instructional Plan

SPARK Learning Assessment Report

Following the assessment, we host a consultation to defrief the results of the report. This is a critical part of the assessment, as it helps us provide transparency to caregivers and educators (as well as the learner themself). An Assessment Specialist will conduct this meeting within a few days following the final evaluation to walk through our findings, a learner’s strengths and challenges, and review individualized recommendations that will place them on the path to their full potential. We welcome the opportunity to collaborate and connect with a learner’s team (such as teachers, outside specialists, and others included in the learning process ) and review the report with them as well. Once a learner is enrolled in programming matched to their needs, we stay in close communication to discuss observations and progress. 

Research substantiates that established rapport and strong connectivity between a learner and their educator yields the highest level of results, thereby expediting progress.

Our report is broken into easy-to-follow sections, as follows: 

  • Summary
  • Tests Conducted
  • Learner Strengths
  • Learner Challenges
  • Learning Impact
  • Recommendations
  • Skills Targets
  • Results
  • Appendix

Educational Specialist Matching: Connecting Learners to their Best-Fit Specialist

Research substantiates that established rapport and strong connectivity between a learner and their educator yields the highest level of results, thereby expediting progress. This is the Specialist-matching part of our SPARK Learning Assessment that is so crucial. A child is matched to an Education Specialist based on several factors, like the Educational Specialist’s training, their certifications, and their personality characteristics (to achieve maximum learner engagement). We also take into account the learner’s interests and strengths to help bolster their attitude toward learning and furthering their own progress.

Ongoing Progress Monitoring

Continuously measuring, monitoring, and communicating a learner’s progress is embedded into everything we do, and this starts with the SPARK Assessment. Within the included report, we delineate the short- and long-term goals (micro-objectives and macro-objectives, respectively) for a learner’s instructional plan. Once we begin supporting services for a learner, we provide frequent session notes and monthly Progress Update meetings, both of which are written in accordance with the short- and long-term goals outlined in our various assessment methods. Additionally, our Assessment Specialists reassess a learner every 6-12 months, depending on the frequency and duration of a learner’s instructional sessions. 

In Close…

The SPARK Learning Assessment provides the perfect opportunity for caregivers, educators, and the learner themself to uncover what is blocking their path to potential. Rather than waiting months to see a psychologist, our SPARK Assessment can help save time, money, and invaluable learning time.

This is part three of our series on learned helplessness. You can read part one here and part two here.

Learned helplessness affects neurotypicals, as well as neurodiverse learners in schools. Unfortunately students with learning disabilities may experience many more failures, which contribute to a never-ending cycle of learning struggles.  These difficulties are reinforced over an extended period of time, across a variety of tasks, assignments, school settings, teachers and experiences. These challenges often contribute to a student’s feeling of helplessness.

Students who experience repeated school failure are particularly prone to develop a learned helpless response style.

What Does Learned Helplessness Look Like at School

“In school, learned helplessness relates to poor grades and underachievement, and to behaviour difficulties. Students who experience repeated school failure are particularly prone to develop a learned helpless response style. Because of repeated academic failure, these students begin to doubt their own abilities, leading them to doubt that they can do anything to overcome their school difficulties. Consequently, they decrease their achievement efforts, particularly when faced with difficult materials, which leads to more school failure. This pattern of giving up when facing difficult tasks reinforces the child’s belief that he or she cannot overcome his or her academic difficulties.”

(numberworksnwords.com)

Classroom based practices may come from good intentions, however constant failure can lead unintentionally to learned helplessness. Ginna Guiang-Myers observes some of the ways learned helplessness could manifest in the school setting:

  • Refusal to accept help, even if the teacher repeatedly offers it
  • Frustration leading to easily giving up
  • Disengagement from effort
  • Lack of motivation
  • Diminished self-worth and self-efficacy (such as providing a myriad of reasons why solutions will not work)

Strategies to Overcome Learned Helplessness at School

  • Examine grading practices and offer rewrites, redos and retakes.
  • Normalize and celebrate failure.
  • Praise and encourage the effort, not the perceived intrinsic ability of the student.
  • Teach specific lessons on optimistic mindset.
  • Work with students to set bite-size goals, and celebrate in a big way when they achieve each goal.
  • Let students have some productive struggle time, do not over scaffold.
  • Define partner or group work so students don’t rely on others to do the work.
  • Teach learned optimism skills and strategies
Students who experience repeated school failure are particularly prone to develop a learned helpless response style.

Another useful strategy is to use questioning to drive learning. Find ways to use open ended questions and avoid right and wrong answers. If a student makes a mistake you can ask them to explain how they arrived at their answer. Sometimes thinking it through exposes the error. You could also ask questions such as:

  • What else could you try doing?
  • Have you explored any other ideas or methods?
  • Why do you think that is?
  • What makes you think that is true?
  • Questioning is a powerful tool to keep students engaged in their own learning. 

Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism created the ABC model. He believes overcoming Learned helplessness in school might be as simple as ABCDE…that’s the acronym for shifting one’s personal narrative. Part of our job as teachers is to help students become more optimistic and establish a positive identity as a learner.

Here’s a short overview of the steps:

Step 1: Have the student name the Adversity or challenge he’s facing.

Step 2: Have the student recognize his underlying Beliefs about the challenge.

Step 3: Have the student identify the Consequences resulting from his negative beliefs.

Step 4: Help the student Dispute or push back on his negative beliefs and gather evidence as to why they are wrong.Step 5: Energize. Help the student generate a positive and more useful alternative belief and help him get energized to act according to the new belief by creating a new “back story” to go with it.

Conclusion

Andrew Miller, reminds us that we need to take responsibility for empowering our students, and to scaffold the process of self-direction. Empowering and building grit in students will not happen overnight. However, there are many steps we can take as educators to avoid the structures and systems that encourage learned helplessness. If they have already fallen into some bad habits, we can also take students from where they are and support them with strategies to overcome the pitfalls of learned helplessness.

About the Author

Dr. Sheila Murphy

Dr. Sheila Murphy is the founder of Alma Bonita Animal Rescue and an educational consultant focused on equity, diversity, social emotional learning and inclusion.  Sheila went into education specifically to advocate and address gaps in the system that failed her own three sons.  With a Doctorate Degree in Educational Leadership, a Master’s Degree in Education, a Master’s Degree in Supervision and Administration and as a Certified Life Coach, Sheila has focused her life’s work on giving to those who are most vulnerable in this world.

Learn more about Dr. Sheila Murphy on her website