Mathematics and Executive Function Skills

How does a young child's ability to control their impulses relate to their growing mathematics skill? While it may seem like these are very separate skills developing early on in life, a growing body of research suggests that they are very much interconnected. Recent research indicates that a child's executive function skills are of central importance in supporting mathematics achievement. In fact, when preschool children have impairments in EF skills, their mathematics achievement in elementary school tends to suffer. In light of this, the latest research suggests that children’s mathematics skill development would benefit from learning experiences that integrate support for both EF and mathematics.

Executive function (EF) skills are the cognitive processes that helps us function in daily life and master a variety of different tasks. Three key skills that have been linked to children's developing mathematics skills are inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. As part of the STEP learning and coaching process, teachers are introduced to these three key EF skills. Through real-life classroom examples, STEP's mission is to help teachers understand that EF and mathematics are inter-related, and that strategies can be used that support both simultaneously. For each of the skills that make up the five areas of early math, at least one of the three key EF skills is highlighted.

Executive Function Blocks - Inhibitory Control, Working Memory, Cognitive Flexibility

Inhibitory Control

Inhibitory control is a child's ability to control their impulses - to stop and think before acting. For example, when a teacher asks children to quickly call out the number of fingers she holds up, a child with strong inhibitory control can stop, look, and think about what amount she sees before calling out the answer.

In a typical preschool classroom, we might see some children who have a pretty difficult time waiting before calling out, while other students will remember to pause and engage in mathematical thinking first. This is a perfect example where we see how important inhibitory control can be for learning math.

Young girl watching teacher to hold up fingers

Working Memory

Working memory allows a child to store, retrieve, and operate on relevant information, which is particularly important when solving math problems. For example, When a teacher reminds a child that there have been three sunny days and two rainy days this week, and then asks which has more days, the child uses his working memory to remember both numbers, recall the amount each represents, and then compare those two amounts against each other. Many area of early math, such as numeracy, operations, and patterning, require children to use their growing working memory.

Boy holding up three fingers

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is a child's ability to be flexible in their thinking and come up with new and different approaches to solve a problem. For example, when a child realizes there are no more square magnetic tiles left to finish building her tower, she figures out a new approach by combining two equilateral triangles together. This ability, to consider multiple solutions and come up with new solutions, is a skill that has life-long benefits, both for learning math and other content areas.

Young girl playing with magna tiles