Math gets a bad wrap. Kids either love it or they really, really hate it.

Despite their distaste, many kids can pick up the concepts with a little extra work. However, there are some kids, about five to six percent, who won’t grasp these concepts with a few after-school sessions. They have dyscalculia, a learning disability with numbers.

Parents of kids with dyscalculia need to understand that their child isn’t just lazy, according to Dr. Anna J. Wilson, an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Auckland. "A child who has missed classes will reveal holes in their knowledge, which will prove to be easily patched. A child who is not progressing purely out of anxiety or lack of motivation will respond well to encouragement while children with dyscalculia will still struggle." That’s because solving math questions requires multiple skills—processing language, ability to link concepts, understanding rules, and remembering step sequences. If any one of these areas is lacking, it can bring about problems in all the other areas.

There is no single form of math disability, which makes detection a problem. How can you tell if your child’s math problem is something serious? Wilson lists some warning signs likely to show up as early as the preschool years:

  • Counting difficulties; both verbal sequencing and counting groups of numbers
  • Slow or failure to recognize number of objects when there are only 2-3 objects
  • Difficulty deciding which of two one-digit numbers is bigger than the other

Other symptoms to look out for in older children:

  • Difficulty in calculations
  • Poor long term memory of math concepts
  • Difficulty in reading, counting, and recalling numbers in sequence
  • Inability to keep score while playing games
  • Inability to tell time

It’s important to catch dyscalculia early on, as math concepts build up from a simple foundation. Children who struggle with basic fundamentals find it extremely hard to tackle complex questions as they move up in classes. By the time parents and teachers realize that a child has a serious problem and decide to do something about it, the child is already 9 or 10 years old and is 3 years behind in school, Wilson says.

Another reason to pay attention to your child’s math skills is because the brain is more adaptable when children are young. Catching the problem early and getting specialized help from trained teachers will bring more benefits than no intervention at all. Though your child may not become an MIT math major, Wilson says trained teachers “can convert an incredibly low performance to at least a below average outcome." She also says there are several things parents can do at home to help their children, including counting objects in front of them, asking questions about quantity and drawing comparisons. During game night, make sure to play some number board games to help your child develop a mental number line.

For parents of dyscalculic children, the following resources are a great way to help:

  • "The Number Race" by Anna J. Wilson and Stanislas Dehaene. This software trains children with an entertaining number comparison game.  
  • "Dyscalculia Guidance" by Brian Butterworth and Dorian Yeo. This book offer guidelines for helping dyscalculic students in the classroom.
  • "Practical activities for Children with Dyscalculia: Parents Edition" by Tony Atwood. This book offers information along with work sheets and activities for young children with dyscalculia.

Don’t let your child give up on math. There are ways to determine what level of help they need. One thing is for sure: math isn’t going away any time soon.