Poster Paper: The Role of Preschool Math Instruction in the Development of Early Executive Function Skills

Thursday, November 8, 2018
Exhibit Hall C - Exhibit Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jane E. Hutchison and Deborah Phillips, Georgetown University

Introduction: Early executive function (EF) skills are known to be an important predictor of school readiness. Many early childhood education (ECE) programs, including Head Start, as well as State early learning standards, now include EF as an explicit early learning goal. Yet, empirical evidence on strategies for supporting EF development in early childhood programs is lacking with consequences for ECE policy and curriculum development. Recently, math instruction has been identified as having the potential to boost preschooler’s EF development, setting in motion a synergistic relationship between developing EF and math skills. This dynamic may be particularly important for low-income children, as income-based discrepancies in EF skills are thought to be partially responsible for the school readiness gap. However, the implications of preschool math instruction for EF development remain relatively understudied. The aim of the current study is to investigate whether time spent in preschool math instruction is associated with gains in low-income children’s EF skills and further, whether this relationship differs depending on baseline levels of EF.

Method: This study uses data collected on 272 low-income three-year old children across 32 Head Start and community-based child care center classrooms in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Teachers provided assessments of the children’s EF skills in the fall and spring of the school year. The amount of time spent on preschool math instruction was coded as part of classroom observations conducted throughout the school day in the spring.

Results: OLS regressions were conducted with EF skills in the spring (controlling for EF skills the fall) as the dependent variable. A dummy variable indicating whether the child was in a classroom that spent at least some time on math as the key independent variable. The independent variable was dichotomized due to a high concentration of observations at zero. An interaction term was included to assess whether this relationship differed depending on baseline EF scores. All models controlled for classroom characteristics, ECE type and child demographics. Standard errors were corrected for clustering within classrooms. Spending at least some time on math in 3-year old classrooms was associated with higher EF scores in the spring (B = 24.05, p < .001). This relationship was stronger for children with the lowest incoming EF scores (B = -0.275, p = .05).

Conclusion: Prior research suggests that preschool teachers tend to spend little to no time on math instruction, leading to concerns about math readiness upon school entry. Results from the current study suggest that a lack of math instruction during the preschool years compromises EF development, particularly for those with initially poor EF abilities. Given the role of early EF skills in school readiness and growing prominence of these skills in Head Start performance and other early learning standards at the state and district levels, these findings provide additional evidence to arguments now being made for greater attention to early math instruction in early childhood programs.