Born That Way? Why a Link Between Genetics and Math Struggles is Mostly a Myth


If you or your spouse struggled with math when you were in school, it might be tempting to chalk up your child’s dyscalculia (the technical term, which simply means “trouble with numbers”) to genetics. But the truth is, there’s no such thing as someone being born bad at math, and it’s certainly not a pre-determined destiny. But for most people, math struggles are caused by these two specific things.

In her book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Time magazine journalist Amanda Ripley writes about Americans’ lackadaisical attitudes toward math, despite its thread being woven into practically every profession. From measuring floor covering to making change for customers, understanding math is crucial, and yet we sometimes downplay its importance. As she explains, part of the problem is that in the United States, many believe that math is an innate ability, like being double-jointed.

“There’s no such thing as someone being born bad at math, and it’s certainly not a pre-determined destiny,” says Tanya Mitchell, co-author of Unlock the Einstein Inside; Applying New Brain Science to Wake Up the Smart In Your Child ( “We do our kids a huge disservice by steering them away from the challenges of math to alleviate their fears. Instead, we should be eradicating those fears by targeting the fundamental building blocks to learning math: cognitive skills.”

According to Mitchell, although genetics can play a role, most people with dyscalculia have poor visual processing and memory skills. For example, weak visual processing skills might cause someone to transpose numbers (68 becomes 86). When working memory is weak, someone doing mental math (say, 23 +28) might forget that they “carried the one,” leading them to answer 41 instead of 51. She says most blocks to excelling in math aren’t about information, but are linked to the skills the brain uses to learn, process, understand, remember and apply that information.

Math in the United States

Ripley writes that part of the issue is that compared to other educationally successful countries, the United States places too much emphasis on sports rather than academics. It’s not uncommon to see children, teens and parents at sports practices and games or athletic competitions for hours after school, leaving them rushed to complete the bare minimum of homework before bed. And it’s certainly not that these kids and teens are unmotivated; in most cases, when it comes to immersing oneself in studying and homework, it’s just about lack of time and energy.

The United States is far from the top when it comes to math education. In fact, Ripley points out in her book that American students scored 26th on a test of critical thinking in math, below average for developed countries. And it has nothing to do with parental involvement. Ripley found that American parents tend to be more involved in school than parents in the other “education superpowers.” The problem is, their involvement has little to do with learning and more to do with fundraising, serving on teacher-appreciation committees and attending PTO/PTA. And while those things are all wonderful, research shows a parent’s involvement in their child’s education is more about quality than quantity. And quality involvement starts at home, like working with your kids to help them excel in math.

So why do Americans put so little focus on math?

Ripley explains that it’s in part due to the fact that many American adults don’t like math either. A surprising percentage doesn’t believe it’s critical to success later in life. In one 2009 survey, most of the American parents said it was more important to finish high school with strong reading and writing skills than with strong math and science skills.

How To Help Your Child

For parents who want to know more specifics about how to help their child excel in math, here are some starting points.

First, stop allowing accommodations in the classroom. You’re not doing your child any favors to prepare for life as an adult by giving them special treatment.

Second, be willing to invest more in outside education. This could mean hiring a tutor if your child falls behind due to frequent family moves, purchasing SAT prep materials, or paying for your high school student to spend his summer studying abroad or attending a pre-college program.

Third, be as involved with math as you are with sports, music lessons and school fundraisers—if not more so. Talk to your child or teen about math, find out where they struggle and rule out other possible issues (like vision or hearing problems, bullying, test anxiety, etc.). Some school districts now offer refresher math courses for parents so they can better help their children.

Finally, have your student’s cognitive skills tested. The root causes of most learning struggles of ANY type are weak cognitive skills. With ADHD, it’s attention. With dyslexia, it’s phonemic awareness. With math, it’s usually memory and visual processing, among others. Once you know what you’re dealing with you can take measures to target those skills at home and with one-on-one brain training.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that math doesn’t matter. It’s no coincidence that the countries that understand the importance of math are those whose students excel in the subject. You may not have the power to change the country, but you can start by placing value, time and energy on math at home.

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