Executive Function Skills & Math
Executive function skills are important for regulating behaviors, as well as academic success, including math achievement. This relation between executive function skills and math is not surprising when considering the cognitive skills involved in solving mathematical problems. For instance, if you ask 5-year-old Lola to figure out, “How many pets are three cats and four dogs altogether?”, she might impulsively count “3, 4” and then shout out “5!”as her answer. This is an example of reciting an overlearned number sequence. Alternatively, Lola might pause to think through the problem, ignore the differences between cats and dogs, and then keep in mind the number 3 while counting up four more numbers (4, 5, 6, 7).
Research findings indicate a consistent and predictive relation between executive function skills and math abilities for many students1,2. For instance, preschoolers who were better at holding verbal information in mind were also more accurate at comparing and combining numbers3. Furthermore, students’ ability to shift attention flexibility during kindergarten as measured by the Minnesota Executive Function Scale Table-top Version, predicted their ability to solve math story problems in first grade4.
Because thinking and learning about mathematics often involves executive function skills, math activities may offer opportunities to practice and improve both skillsets simultaneously.
Below are some examples of how parents can support the development of both mathematical and executive function skills in daily activities:
1. Help your child hold Information in mind.
Just like the example of Lola having to remember two different numbers while counting, children must keep relevant information in mind when solving math problems. If your child tries but fails to keep track of all the numbers, you may provide working memory support by suggesting some alternative strategies such as holding up 3 fingers on one hand and 4 fingers on the other hand, then counting all the fingers.
You can also turn daily activities into opportunities to practice working memory. For instance, when packing for a five-day vacation, parents can ask children, “How many shirts, shorts, socks, etc., do we need to pack? Let’s try to keep them in mind before we start packing!” If children have difficulty remembering all the items during the packing process, parents can provide hints such as, “We packed 5 shirts and 5 pairs of shorts. What else do you put on when you get ready in the morning?” With older children, parents can help them practice both working memory and arithmetic skills by asking them to keep track of and figure out the total of a grocery bill during grocery shopping.
2. Remind your child to reflect.
Instead of diving into a problem and shouting out the answer right away, children can learn to pause and think through the problem. One way to support reflective thinking is to encourage children to think quietly before sharing their thoughts. For example, before bringing out the plates for dinner, parents can ask children to predict, “How many plates do we need? Think quietly first, then share your ideas.” If children have trouble predicting the number of plates needed, parents can help by prompting, “Count quietly in your head, how many people are here?”
Snack time can also be an opportunity for practice. You can try prompting your child, “We have 12 strawberries in the bowl. Let’s think quietly about how we can share these strawberries fairly between you, mommy, and daddy. Then we can share our ideas.”
3. Encourage your child to plan ahead.
During planning, children must pause, think through the problem, generate ideas, select a plan of action, and carry out each step. Encouraging children to create and execute a plan may promote reflective thinking as well as planning skills. One idea for practicing this skill is to create a recipe and follow the steps together. For instance, when making a salad, parents can ask questions such as, “How many olives and tomatoes should we put in the salad?” Then parents and children can count the items together.
4. Change Things Up!
Being able to shift attention flexibly is another important aspect of executive function that is often involved in solving math problems. Many daily activities are great opportunities for children to practice both skills. One way to do so is to change up some aspects of these activities. For instance, when playing with Lego pieces, parents can support flexible thinking by first asking children to count all the pieces by shape (e.g., squares, rectangles), then shift their attention by asking them to count all pieces by color (e.g., blue, red). Parents can also support shifting skills while building a tower together, such as making color (e.g., blue, green, blue, green, etc.) and shape (e.g., square, square, rectangle, square, square, rectangle, etc.) patterns with children.
Even if you are not always aware of it, your child is using executive function skills to solve any math problem that is new or challenging. Practicing EF in the context of math games is a great way to build both skills!
- To learn more about research on early math education, please visit: https://dreme.stanford.edu/
- For tips on reading math books with children, place visit: https://dreme.stanford.edu/news/10-tips-reading-math-picture-books-young-children
- For an app to incorporate math problems in daily life, please visit: http://bedtimemath.org/
- Games and toys that promote math talk and learning include: Chutes and Ladders, Legos blocks, and The Number Race.
About the Author
Jenny Yun-Chen Chan earned her B.S. in Psychology and Biology from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Developmental Psychology at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. Her research focuses primarily on the development of mathematical thinking and learning. Her work examines the influences of non-numerical skills (e.g., language and executive function skills) on mathematical thinking and learning. She is also investigating whether and how contexts affect children’s attention to number and interpretation of number words. In addition to basic research, she is involved in applied work where she contributes to the Development and Research in Early Math Education (DREME) Network projects, and collaborated with Dr. von Baeyer to examine the influence of cognitive developmental factors on children’s ability to use numerical and faces scales when reporting pain intensity. Through her research, she hopes to better understand developmental pathways to mathematical thinking and learning and inform efforts to develop high-quality education and practices.
1Clark, C. A. C., Sheffield, T. D., Wiebe, S. A., & Espy, K. A. (2013). Longitudinal associations between executive control and developing mathematical competence in preschool boys and girls. Child Development, 84(2), 662–77. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01854.x
2Cragg, L., & Gilmore, C. (2014). Skills underlying mathematics: The role of executive function in the development of mathematics proficiency. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 3, 63–68. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tine.2013.12.001
3Purpura, D. J., Schmitt, S. A., & Ganley, C. M. (2017). Foundations of mathematics and literacy: The role of executive functioning components. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 153, 15–34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2016.08.010
4Hassinger-Das, B., Jordan, N. C., Glutting, J., Irwin, C., & Dyson, N. (2014). Domain-general mediators of the relation between kindergarten number sense and first-grade mathematics achievement. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 118(1), 78–92. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2013.09.008