It’s well known that teaching children to read is a process that begins at a very early age, but a study published in Child Development demonstrates that math should be treated the same way.

Previous studies have shown that the best predictor of a child’s math performance in later grades is the level of math skill the child has when they first begin school. It’s a better predictor of academic performance than are reading skills, attention, or social skills. But how should a parent help their child develop math skills?

Most already teach their kids to count. And though it varies, most children start counting around age two. But there’s a very important concept that comes after learning how to count that parents can help teach their children as well – the concept of quantity.

While some children can look at a group of three objects and count them successfully at age two, understanding that those objects can be labeled as a group of three things is a much more difficult idea to grasp and one that doesn’t usually take hold until age four or later.

Beth Casey, a professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, says, “Eventually around four or four and a half years old, a lot of kids start to understand this general cardinal principle: independent of how the objects are arranged, the last number that you count with a set of objects represents the quantity of the whole set.” And that’s a big cognitive step. “It takes them a long time to do that with lots of practice,” says Casey.

Casey shows in her study that parents can help with this. Teaching kids how to read and count is important but, she says, “labeling quantities, for example, saying, ‘There are three pennies here,’ is another kind of representation that they can support.”

A strategy for parents

For the study, Casey and her colleagues observed videos of mothers playing with their three-year-old children. They were all given the same toys separated into three boxes and no instruction other than to play with the toys in order of box number. The first box contained stencils and tracing materials, the second contained dress-up clothes and a toy cash register with pennies, and the third contained blocks. The cash register, pennies, and blocks were all intended to elicit parental instruction on counting.

The researchers calculated how often the parents identified numerals and how often they counted objects. Additionally, they scored how often parents labeled the quantities of a set of objects. So, for example, pointing out that there are three blocks in front of the child rather than just counting ‘one, two, three’. These interactions were then compared to scores on math assessments given to the children at age four and a half as well as in first grade.

Of the three types of numerical interactions measured, labeling quantities of sets of objects was the only action that predicted math ability later on. Unfortunately, as one other study showed, parents rarely combine counting with quantity labeling. But it’s something parents can add to their repertoire to prepare their children as much as they can for the math instruction they’ll receive once they begin school.

“What they can do to help their children understand this concept of quantity is relatively simple,” says Casey, “They can label quantities for the child and ask, ‘How many apples are in the bag?’ or, ‘Give me three glasses from the shelf,’ during their everyday interactions with their children.”

Casey is now working on designing interventions that parents can use with their kids that will hopefully lay a solid groundwork for math ability.

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