I have had two students so far with a documented disability called dyscalculia. However, I am a strong proponent in the idea that our primary goal as educators should be the development of something called a growth mindset in our students.

I am hoping to hear from someone who is familiar with both of these topics. I am not interested in any statements about "kids these days" or the "sad state of our society".

The most specific definition of dyscalculia I have found is difficulty acquiring basic arithmetic skills, but if that is the working definition, then students would not request extra time on exams in classes that allow sophisticated calculators. In my experience, the students and staff have all applied the term much more generally, which is what you will find if you look outside medical sources, for example:

Kids with dyscalculia also have trouble remembering math facts. Or they may understand the logic behind math, but not how or when to apply what they know to solve math problems.

If you go deeper, you find even more aggressive statements like "Developmental dyscalculia tends to run in families, possibly because of a genetic predisposition."

This all conflicts pretty directly with the idea of a growth mindset, because the student is told by medical professionals, then their parents, and then support staff on campus that they are intrinsically bad at math and even that it runs in the family.

I find that most of my success in math education comes from instilling a growth mindset: communicating the idea that anyone can improve at math with work and focus. But when I am directly contradicting all the other students' authority figures, I do not see a way to succeed. The pattern so far is that I cannot advance the student toward a growth mindset, and they inevitably fail their course of study.

What can/should a math educator do in this situation?

Edit: A "growth mindset" can be defined this way, see this article:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.

In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

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    $\begingroup$ While I agree that the discussion that has developed probably belongs in chat, I'd like to point out that the term "growth mindset" as commonly used in tertiary math ed in the US wouldn't preclude kids failing Algebra II if they didn't know how to multiply single-digit numbers. I don't know any people at that level who would say a growth mindset automatically confers ability to meet a given standard, but rather that they can make more progress toward it than they thought before. I would guess that's true at the secondary level as well, but maybe that's not the case. $\endgroup$
    – kcrisman
    Sep 19, 2019 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ @SueVanHattum Dyscalculia is related to (and high comorbidity with) dyslexia and AD(H)D, both of which are neurological. I am less familiar with the literature on dyscalculia, but I suspect that there is a physical / neurological component. In any event, a diagnosis is not an excuse (i.e. "I'm just bad at math so I won't bother trying"). A diagnosis is a description of a problem which, hopefully, opens the door for mitigation. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson
    Sep 20, 2019 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ To add an anecdotal log to the fire, I am dyslexic. Knowing this likely doesn't make much difference to my learning, but it does give me access to tools that I wouldn't have thought to look for without a diagnosis (such as fonts specifically designed for people with dyslexia (yay ebooks!), using a notecard to underline what I am reading and obscure other text, etc). $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson
    Sep 20, 2019 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ @RustyCore Did you read to the end of that paragraph? "So it could be argued that mindset theory, like so many other ideas in pop psychology, has sometimes been oversimplified and overhyped, and/or that there appear to be some holes in it here or there. But it’s not fair to level such critiques, or to amplify them as I did, without also addressing the other side of the ledger: There is a decent quantity of published evidence which at least partially supports Dweck’s ideas. I do think Chivers should have mentioned those meta-analyses... $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson
    Sep 23, 2019 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielR.Collins I tried to make a place for you to elaborate where you can get internet points for doing so; if you have time here it is: matheducators.stackexchange.com/q/24418/11 $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2021 at 18:18

2 Answers 2


To lay this out at the front, I do not have have any medical or therapeutic credentials -- I just have certification in both secondary mathematics and special education. I will also be a bit US-centric in spots, as that is where my certification is. For the sake of my international colleagues, an IEP (Individualized Education Program) is an annual plan for tracking the supports, test accommodations, and goals that are appropriate for each student with an identified disability in the US.

[...] because the student is told by medical professionals, then their parents, and then support staff on campus that they are intrinsically bad at math and even that it runs in the family.

This is a notion that we really need to confront as educators. Your instinct about growth mindset is completely correct and appropriate.

Neither dyscalculia nor any other learning disability is, in itself, an excuse to not master mathematics. What it means is that these students require extra time and support to develop individual strategies that their peers might not need to master the skills to ensure success in education. In some cases, it might allow a student to use a calculator on a test that isn't assessing arithmetic skills. It might involve getting pulled out to spend time learning Touch Math or something similar for students who need a tactile-kinetic activity to supplement memory. The idea is that their IEP is going to be written to indicate how to address each student, but the idea is that the plan is developed to lead to success and should not ever be thought of is what they are doing while the other students are succeeding.

Especially for these students, it's all the more critical that they also develop emotional skills to keep from writing themselves off. As you say, they get enough of that from family and "friends", and it's really easy to conclude that something is hard for you because you're not meant to be doing it. But making sure that they're always noticing their progress and rewarding them for their effort more than their results is a great strategy no matter what challenges your students come into your room with.

  • $\begingroup$ Late comment, but -- Readers should note that the IEP is only applicable through high school graduation; not college, as is the context for the OP. Further, it may in fact modify/reduce criteria for awarding the high school diploma, which seems in conflict with the "[no] excuse to not master mathematics" advice given here. $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2021 at 17:02

Chris, I do think it's true that students differ in their aptitude. Assuming everyone is a tabula rasa would be naive. We all aren't going to be Michael Jordan, no matter the training.

That said, I do think the "diagnosis" with a fancy sounding malady is a bit of pseudoscience. And you are correct to recognize that it's giving a fancy name for "bad at math". (Why is something better with a fancy name? Education is so prone to sound fancy fads!)

Also, I do question if the "diagnosis" (as if we had put the kids in a spectroscope and perfectly analyzed them) can be off. Especially with younger kids. There can be a lot of confounding factors in human performance.

Additionally, I agree that the diagnosis can lead to a bit of "give up" by the kids. Versus "I guess I gotta shoot more baskets than the next guy". Also the testing allowances (extra time) are essentially letting the worse kids throw from a closer free throw line (versus training them harder, or even redirecting them to other pursuits).

From a practical standpoint, you need to think how you do most good without going so torn up that you throw up your hands. My advice would just be to be a bit thick skinned and somewhat ignore the pschobable diagnoses. Don't take it on. But also don't let it affect you. Teach kids the best you can. Que sera, sera.

Obviously for things like extra time, you just have to allow it since those are the rules. For kids that really don't need the math skills to move on to career, it might not be the end of the world that they are (to a degree) being social promoted. For kids that do need the skills, they will get weeded out later on.

Big picture, don't get too amped up about the issue. This is a practical optimization problem. Don't let the 99 sheep get eaten by wolves, while you try to save one. Bible was wrong here. You can't save them all.

Triage baby. Some will die regardless of assistance. Some will get better on own regardless. Some can be saved with medical help. If the surgeon's time is limited...

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    $\begingroup$ -1; When your answer to the question "how do I help student X" includes the phrases "don't let it affect you," "you can't save them all," and "triage baby." I would suggest that you instead not answer the question at all. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2019 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ Something that I have noticed about those instructors who I regard as good and effective is that they have the following dilemma: when their students do well, they credit their students; when their students fail, the blame themselves. While this may not be entirely healthy, it does prompt these instructors to examine what they might do in order to improve student performance in the future. Your attitude, on the other hand, actively discourages an effort to improve one's pedagogy. In a forum designed to foster improvement among educators, I don't see a place for this attitude. (-1) $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson
    Sep 23, 2019 at 14:10

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