Funded Grants

Intrinsic and extrinsic influences on young children’s mathematical abilities

Math permeates the lives of young children. They argue about which pile of candy has the most and who should get it. They count their fingers, number of people in the family, and spaces on board games. However, already by school entry, children display striking individual differences in these skills, and delays can set them on a path for low math performance, lower income, and lower chances of full-time employment later in life. But what are the origins for these individual differences? My research focuses on the development of mathematical thinking in early childhood, specifically how complex mathematical thinking builds upon ontogenetically earlier number concepts and the mechanisms that shape this development. To this end, I use behavioral measures drawing from experimental designs and observational techniques typical for cognitive and developmental psychology, standardized assessments relevant for education, and brain imaging techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG), event-related potentials (ERPs), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Previous research has shown that intrinsic and extrinsic factors influence children’s math abilities. On the one hand, children’s intuitive number sense, i.e., their ability to rapidly approximate the number of objects in a set without counting them, predicts their math abilities later in life. For example, my collaborators and I showed that infants’ intuitive number sense predicts their performance on a standardized math assessment during the preschool years. On the other hand, the math-related learning opportunities that children experience in their environment, especially at home and in their preschools, are linked with their math abilities. For example, we showed that the frequency with which parents talk about numbers when playing with their children predicts children’s math abilities. Thus, variability in young children’s math abilities seems to be driven both by intrinsic variations in foundational number skills and math-related environmental input. Interestingly, parents’ own intuitive number sense and their math abilities correlate with their children’s math abilities and how frequently they engage in math talk with their children suggesting a complex relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

A key focus of my on-going and future work is to identify the psychological prerequisites and biological foundations on which mathematical abilities are built, the child’s own contributions to the construction of mathematical knowledge, and the necessary social input from parents and early childhood educators that gives rise to the emergence of mathematical thinking. The overarching goal of my work is to further our theoretical understanding of the development of early mathematical cognition, to use this knowledge to improve children’s math abilities through targeted interventions, and to ultimately increase students’ prospects for academic success in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Support from the James S. McDonnell Foundation would significantly increase my ability to advance these lines of work and provide critical theoretical and practical contributions to researchers and practitioners at the intersection of cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology, and education.