Early Childhood

Study: Signs of Future Math Difficulties Can be Spotted in Toddlers

By Christina A. Samuels — November 10, 2014 3 min read
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Cross-posted from On Special Education

Children with developmental disabilities, or who struggle with vocabulary as toddlers, are at risk of developing persistent math difficulties—and boosting a child’s reading skills, ensuring access to preschool, and avoiding the use of grade retention may be ways to head off those math struggles, according to a study published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities.

The study noted that while there’s a wealth of research on reading difficulties and how to address them early, there is much less research about when math difficulties first start to manifest themselves and how to solve them, said Paul L. Morgan, an associate professor of psychology at Penn State University and the report’s lead author.

Part of the challenge is that, compared to literacy, there’s not as much knowledge about what math skills children should have at what age, Morgan said in an interview with Education Week. So, while a student who stumbles while reading aloud grade-level books at 3rd grade would be immediately singled out for more help, another student struggling with math may just be thought to need more practice, and that the issues will sort themselves out.

According to Morgan’s research, however, certain characteristics a toddler displays at 24 months can be predictive of math difficulties when they are 4 and 5 years old. And students who have math difficulties at 3rd, 5th and 8th grades were generally also struggling with math in kindergarten. “If you start to struggle early on, that’s highly predictive,” Morgan said.

The report used two data sets to develop its conclusions: the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth, which tracks a sample of children nationwide who were born in 2001, and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-K, which has followed a sample of children who were in kindergarten in 1998-99 through 8th grade. About 900 children were identified as having persistent math difficulties.

For children in the birth cohort, researchers found that 2-year-olds with cognitive delays, low vocabulary as compared to other toddlers, or who came from a low socioeconomic background were at risk of having math difficulties by age 4 or 5. Attending a center-based preschool or Head Start program appeared to decrease this risk.

For the kindergarten cohort, math difficulties by the end of kindergarten were strongly predictive of math problems in 3rd, 5th and 8th grades—even more predictive than a prior history of cognitive delays. Low socioeconomic status also was predictive of math difficulties, along with a history of reading or behavioral problems, a history of grade retention, and a disability diagnosis. In this part of the study, preschool attendance did not appear to be a protective factor for persistent math difficulties in late elementary or middle school.

Part of the study’s conclusion is that early difficulties in math don’t work themselves out on their own; children need support to address them. Also, a focused approach on improving early literacy could also help children with math. Morgan hypothesized that some of the language around math is fairly abstract, and children who can’t read well have difficulty interpreting instructions or solving world problems.

“Literacy and language-related skills are important, as is self-regulation, the ability to stay on task, and be persistent,” Morgan said—all issues teachers can address with their students who have math struggles, he added.

In our conversation, Morgan mentioned that some teachers may feel uncomfortable with math themselves, which can affect their students’ perceptions of their own math skills. The federal Institute for Educational Sciences released a practice guide on early math that spells out just what math skills young children should master, and how to teach those skills.

We also talked about the relative lack of resources for parents to bolster early math skills in their children, compared to information available on the benefits of reading to one’s child, which is now seen as a necessity. One site, Bedtime Math, provides math stories and puzzles for parents to use as a regular part of a child’s day, just like the nightly bedtime story.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.