• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Tuesday 01st October, 2013

Patience is a mathematical virtue

strong>What skills are important as young children learn math? New research adds to existing evidence that patience and the ability to concentrate go hand-in-hand with math ability – even for children who haven’t yet started school.Preschoolers who had symptoms of ADHD, or those who couldn’t resist the impulse to take a smaller reward sooner instead of waiting for a larger reward, had a harder time with counting and matching sets of objects. These findings, from a German study of preschool children, add weight to the idea that self-control and willpower – together called “self-regulation” – are crucial for academic achievement. Self-regulation is also important for broader life outcomes, such as keeping a job, building relationships, and making healthy decisions, so any improvement to young children’s self-control could lead to more positive outcomes in the long term.Testing self-regulationThe research team, led by Caterina Gawrilow at the IDeA center in Frankfurt, assessed whether the relationship between self-control and academic ability can be seen before children begin any form of formal instruction. In the study, 77 preschool children (ages 5-6) from Germany were assessed using two measures of self-regulation and a test of basic mathematical ability. Parent ratings of ADHD-related symptoms were the first measure of self-regulation. The researchers found that children with higher ratings of ADHD-related symptoms, indicating low self-control, did worse on the sorts of numeric tests that would require a five-year-old to concentrate hard. Children were asked to match sets of objects, find which number was missing from a series of numbers, and answer questions about “more” and “less.”In the second part of the study, a new sample of 80 preschool-age children from Germany performed an age-appropriate computerized test of self-regulation. Children were told to choose one of two circles, each of which would award them a certain number of “tokens.” If they decided to choose the higher-value circle, they also had to wait longer to get it. Children who were able to wait longer for a bigger reward, thereby demonstrating high self-control, performed better on tests of basic numeric ability. Drawing implicationsWhat can we draw from these findings?First, they suggest that the relationship between self-regulation and academic ability is evident in children even before they begin school. This is important, as children who have low self-control tend to do worse on many measures, academic and non-academic. Second, it is possible that intervention can improve self-regulatory abilities in even very young children. So far, research is limited, but there is some early evidence that self-regulation programs can lead to academic improvements.One limitation of the study is the reliance on parent ratings as a measure of self-regulation in their children. Parent opinion is subjective and can often be biased, while little information was collected in terms of parenting style and the parent’s own self-regulatory abilities. Also, the study was not designed to show that better self-control, by itself, causes better numerical skills. It seems likely that families where preschoolers learn self-control are also families that expose their preschoolers to counting and playing around with numbers. The home environment could contribute directly to both self-regulation and to math skills.In terms of future research, the authors called for study of the relationship between children’s scores on the computerized test of self-regulation and long-term outcomes. This could further improve our understanding of how self-regulation is related to academic performance and other outcomes over time.*********Reference: Gawrilow, C., Fäsche, A., Guderjahn, L., Gunzenhauser, C., Merkt, J., & von Suchodoletz, A. (2013). The Impact of Self-Regulation on Preschool Mathematical Achievement. Child Indicators Research, DOI 10.1007/s12187-013-9201-y

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