Math anxiety vs. dyscalculia in kids: Comparing the signs

By The Understood Team

At a glance

  • Dyscalculia and math anxiety are different.

  • Both can affect how kids do in math, and they can show up in similar ways.

  • Understanding the difference can help you and your child find solutions.

Dyscalculia is a learning difference that causes trouble with math. But dyscalculia isn’t the same as math anxiety. Math anxiety can make kids question their abilities in math, even if they have strong skills.

It can be easy to think of dyscalculia and math anxiety as the same thing, especially because the signs can look similar. Think of it this way:

Doing math with dyscalculia is like hiking with a sprained ankle. Doing math with math anxiety is like being a physically able hiker who worries about what might happen if they try to climb the peak — self-doubt gets in the way of success.

Even though dyscalculia and math anxiety are different, the signs can overlap. And it’s possible for a child to have both. This chart can help you understand what you’re seeing in your child.

Signs of math anxietySigns of dyscalculia

Kids worry they’ll do poorly on a math test, even though they understand the material and have studied.

Kids expect to do poorly on a math test because they don’t understand the material, even after studying.

Kids do poorly on math tests, even after preparing for them, because anxiety gets in the way.

Kids do poorly on math tests, even after preparing for them, because they don’t understand the material.

Kids can get through homework fairly easily and answer most problems correctly. But they feel anxious about doing it.

They may even make mistakes because they’re so anxious: They may focus too much on some details, or have trouble focusing on others.

Kids spend a long time doing homework and get many of the answers wrong.

Kids try to avoid going to math class when there’s a quiz or test.

Kids try to avoid going to math class, especially when there’s a quiz or test, because they’re sure they’ll fail.

Kids get good grades on math homework and classwork, but not on tests.

Kids get poor grades on math homework, classwork, and tests.

Watch as an expert explains more about the difference between dyscalculia and math anxiety.

Knowing what’s behind your child’s difficulty with math lets you respond in the best way. Find out what to do if you’re concerned your child has dyscalculia. If you think your child has anxiety, use an anxiety log to keep track of what you’re seeing. If you have concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s doctor.

Key takeaways

  • Dyscalculia is a learning difference that affects math skills such as counting, recalling math facts, and understanding math concepts.

  • Math anxiety is an emotional issue involving self-doubt and fear of failing.

  • Both can create test anxiety and lead kids to try to avoid going to math classes.

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    About the author

    About the author

    The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Jerome Schultz, PhD is a clinical neuropsychologist and lecturer in the Harvard Medical School Department of Child Psychiatry.