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Can Preschool Math Instruction Simultaneously Support the Development of Early Executive Functioning and Math Skills?

Fri, March 22, 7:45 to 9:15am, Baltimore Convention Center, Floor: Level 1, Exhibit Hall B

Integrative Statement

Recently, it has been suggested that the well-established relation between EF and math may be bi-directional, with early math skills predicting EF development and early EF skills predicting math development (Clements et al., 2016). One tool that has the potential to simultaneously support both EF and math development is preschool math instruction. This may be particularly important for low-income children, as income-based discrepancies in EF are thought to contribute to achievement gaps (Fitzpatrick et al., 2013). However, the possible dual role of preschool math instruction in supporting both EF and math development remains understudied. This study investigates whether time spent on preschool math instruction is associated with gains in both EF and math skills and further, whether these relations differ with children’s baseline levels of EF.

Data are drawn from a new longitudinal study of pre-K impacts in Tulsa, Oklahoma (Project SEED). This study uses data from the year 1 sample of 3-year-old children (N = 240) in 31 preschool classrooms. The children’s EF and math skills were measured in the fall and spring of the 2016-17 school year using a teacher-reported assessment of children’s EF behaviors and a standardized test of math achievement. The amount of time spent on preschool math instruction was captured using the Narrative Record -- an observational coding tool that captures classroom activities across the school day (Farran & Bilbrey, 2004).

OLS regression models were estimated to predict spring EF and math skills from baseline (fall) EF and math skills and a dummy variable indicating whether the child was in a classroom that spent some (73% of classrooms) or zero time on math. We included an interaction term (baseline EF x time on math) in both regressions to assess whether the relations differed depending on children’s initial EF scores. All models controlled for classroom characteristics, ECE type (Head Start or community child care) and child demographics. Neither baseline math skills nor time spent on math instruction significantly predicted spring EF skills. However, children’s baseline EF skills and time spent on math instruction were both unique predictors of preschoolers’ math abilities in the spring (see Table 1). Additionally, we observed a significant interaction in which the effect of time spent on math for spring math skills was greater for children with the lowest baseline EF skills (see Figure 1).

These findings are highly pertinent to efforts to understand the relation between developing EF and math skills and the role of preschool classroom processes – in this case, time on math instruction -- in supporting these key outcomes. While we did not find evidence to support a bi-directional relation (baseline math skills and math instruction did not predict spring EF skills), it is plausible that 3-year-olds’ incoming math skills are not yet sufficiently developed to scaffold early EF development. Forthcoming analyses conducted on the combined 3- and 4-year-old data will further explore these questions, which are highly relevant to broader efforts aimed at deciphering the active ingredients of successful pre-k programs that foster critical early learning capacities.

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