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The following article is based on a blog posting that appeared on
October 13, 2013, in the blog Chasing Hollyfeld (chasinghollyfeld.com).
Parenting twice-exceptional children as they enter school could be likened to hacking your way through a horrible, complicated maze in the jungle, only to finally come into a clearing and realize that homeschooling is really the only viable option. I retell our personal experiences here not only to offer some hope to those considering homeschooling their 2e child, but also to inform others about dyscalculia, a math learning disability. Had we, or the teachers we encountered, known about dyscalculia sooner, it would have saved my daughter a tremendous amount of pain and heartache.
Our daughter, H, went through the usual early childhood milestones, a bundle of joyful exuberance and dramatic entrances. She entered a Montessori preschool along with her twin sister, learning to read at age
3 1/2. The preschool was a fun place for both of them to make new friends and learn new things.
During parent-teacher conferences, the reading teacher glowed about how well they were both doing with reading; and the math teacher told us how well our one daughter was doing with the math activities. When we asked about our other daughter, she noted that H didn’t like to visit the math area. We didn’t think too much of this fact because we had no expectations of them really learning anything of substance at age 3 or 4. It seemed H was learning her numbers along with the other kids.
Next, we enrolled both girls in our local kindergarten. While H struggled some with basic addition and subtraction, she didn’t seem to be behind most of the other kindergarten kids.
The following year both girls started in a full-time gifted and talented (GT) program. It was grade accelerated, meaning that the students skipped first-grade math and moved to second-grade math. At this point, H began to struggle more, becoming anxious about her math abilities and worried that math was taking her more time than the other kids. The teacher grew increasingly worried about H’s anxiety levels and her inability to remember math concepts.
H and her teacher began having daily struggles, which always ended in tears. We worked with H every day at home, trying to help her memorize addition and subtraction facts. She would learn them one day, then forget them the next. At school, she developed impostor syndrome, becoming convinced that she wasn’t smart enough to be in the class and wasn’t really “gifted.”
We spent that year watching helplessly as H’s signature joy drained away. Her peers would remark — not always kindly — about her lack of math ability, and H tried to hide her deficiencies as best she could. Nevertheless, because she remained ahead of the class in reading and spelling, H was advanced to the next grade.
At this point, we discussed having the school place H in a regular class for math, while keeping her in the GT class for the other subjects. However, because the second-grade GT class was very math-focused, the teacher suggested having her pulled out for math individually that so she could work at her own level. We agreed; and, for a while, things seemed to improve.
Although she felt somewhat embarrassed to be leaving class during math time, H appeared to be learning more basic math when she was alone, away from the scrutiny of her peers. Nevertheless, H remained joyless and anxious during school. Plus, by the end of the year she was still unable to add or subtract without counting on her fingers. She could not read an analog clock, understand time, or understand the concepts of multiplication and division. She still could not tie her shoes.
Around this time, as we started to research difficulties with math learning, we discovered the word dyscalculia, which brought together difficulties with time, counting, sequencing, and math skills. We also found a handful of websites with information on screening children and adults for math learning disabilities. H appeared to meet every criterion for a severe math learning disability, and for dyscalculia in particular. As a physician, I am aware of the perils of patients diagnosing themselves based on Internet information, so I brought the information to her teacher. Although H‘s teacher had never heard of dyscalculia, she thought it was worth looking into.
When we had H privately tested, I’m not sure what was more jarring — her well-above-grade-level reading and spelling scores, or her well below-grade-level math scores. The testing confirmed our initial suspicions about dyscalculia. We met with the school, requested a 504 Plan, and decided to have H move up another grade for everything but math. Our plan was to have her homeschool math with a tutor.
H started working with the tutor over the summer and continued throughout the next school year, every school day, one-on-one, for an hour. The tutor was patient and had experience with both gifted and learning-disabled kids. H made some good progress over the course of the year and caught up to her age-appropriate grade level for math.
The tutor, who was also a trained and licensed test administrator, tested H and provided us with more hair-tearing news: she was significantly behind grade level in a handful of areas, marginally behind in another handful…and gifted in a third handful. None of the three skill sets had the slightest thing to do with one another!
A year later, we decided to full-time homeschool all of our kids for different reasons. For H, the concept of an age-assigned classroom was becoming increasing obsolete, as she was advancing further in her strength subjects, while continuing to make slow progress in math.
As a homeschooler, H can spend more of her time on the things she loves and that come easy for her: creative writing, reading, and art. Once again, she is our happy, joyous child, no longer bound hourly by the constraints of her learning disability, but able to utilize her gifts as she sees fit.
As for math, H uses an online math curriculum involving a great deal of repetition, which works well for her. She still needs support — reminder sheets with math formulas, multiplication tables, and, of course, a calculator — but on the upside, she can manipulate that calculator, as well as a spreadsheet, better than most adults. She can read a digital clock, and has started to understand the concept of time. Her math anxiety has significantly decreased, perhaps due in part to a favorite book of hers, My Thirteenth Winter, by Samantha Abeel. This wonderfully written book is a personal story of dyscalculia that H has re-read countless times.
Here are some websites to get you started:
Now, we feel as though we›ve come through the maze, spending our mornings in the warm sun of the clearing. We have no desire to hack back into the jungle, at least for the present. When the time comes that H needs to re-enter formal schooling (college?), she will have the tools she needs to navigate the maze with her natural grace and poise.
If our story describes your child, we urge you to ask a professional about dyscalculia. A math learning disability is more than being “bad at math”; and getting help early makes a difference.
Kathy Mayer, along with her husband, Dave, blog about their experiences as they work and homeschool three gifted children. Kathy is a part-time physician; Dave is a consultant and author. You can read more about their journey at ChasingHollyfeld.com.