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Understanding How a Child’s Executive Function Skills Improve Their Math Skills

Did you know that your child’s executive function (EF) skills can help them in math? Read on to learn how you can help your child use their EF skills to help them with number skills!

This article is part of our weekly series, Executive Function Tips for Families.

Before We Begin

This article explains the study “Executive function and mathematics in preschool children: Training and transfer effects” Prager, E. O., Ernst, J. R., Mazzocco, M. M., & Carlson, S. M. (2023). Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 232, 105663. This study looked at how different types of training affect preschool children’s executive function (EF) and math skills. EF includes working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control, which are key for success in math.

Key Takeaways

When children have focused training on EF skills, it improves not only their EF skills but also their ability to work with numbers. Then, as they become better at working with numbers, their general math skills also improve. This is a win-win for your child!

What does my child need to be successful in math?

Whether you are measuring ingredients for a recipe or comparing prices at the store, you use math every day. Much like building a house, a strong foundation of math skills is needed for your child to be successful. Let’s take a look at some of those early number skills.

  • Recognizing numbers – knowing numbers by their names and by how they look
  • Counting – knowing numbers in the correct order
  • Comparing numbers – knowing if numbers are larger or smaller than each other
  • Mathematical operations – knowing how to add and subtract numbers

Studies have shown that working on these skills in early childhood helps children be successful in math throughout primary school, middle school, and high school.

How do my child’s EF skills help their early math skills?

Researchers wanted to know if there is a relationship between EF skills and number skills in preschoolers, meaning if improving one set of these skills also improves the other.

They found that. . . 

  • Number skill lessons require EF skills.
    • Remembering sequences of numbers (Working Memory)
    • Ruling out incorrect answers (Cognitive Flexibility)
    • Comparing two sets of numbers (Cognitive Flexibility)
    • Staying focused on the task (Inhibitory Control)
  • Working on these EF skills improved preschoolers’ number skills.
  • Working on math skills alone did not strengthen EF skills.

Actionable Steps for Parents

There are many simple ways that you can help your child with EF and number skills! 

  • Through physical activity, you can help your child improve their Inhibitory Control and Cognitive Flexibility. 
    • Play: I See! I See! – In this fun movement game, your child will practice stopping on cue, listening for a new direction, and switching to another task. You can also switch roles and let your child give directions!
  • Helping your child improve their EF skills can strengthen their number skills. How about an activity that can do both?
    • Play: Blink! – This fun game works with colors, shapes, and numbers, while improving your child’s Working Memory, Inhibitory Control and Cognitive Flexibility.
  • The relationship between EF skills and math is not surprising when you think of all the cognitive skills used to solve math problems. It is important to find ways to support the development of both these skills in your child’s daily activities, such as counting the right number of forks and spoons for dinner or making sure everyone has the same number of cookies.

Conclusion

As a parent, you want to support your child’s executive functioning (EF) and math skills. Luckily, you can do both of these things at the same time with activities that have your child counting, sorting, focusing, and thinking! Improving your child’s EF skills is a great way to help them become strong mathematicians!