George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

The Research on Early Childhood Math

In a recent book, developmental psychologists and teachers discuss the best approaches to math education in the early grades.

April 23, 2019
A teacher shows young students a purple construction paper card with the number 4 on it
©Christopher House

For over 10 years, the Early Math Collaborative has focused on quality early math education—providing professional development to early childhood educators, administrators, and trainers; conducting research on effective methods for math instruction with children and on approaches for teacher educators and teacher development; and being a hub on foundational mathematics. The Collaborative is part of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school centered on child development.

I recently spoke with the Collaborative’s director, Lisa Ginet, EdD, about the group’s 2018 book Growing Mathematical Minds, which connects research on children’s mathematical thinking with classroom practice. Ginet has spent more than three decades as an educator in various roles and has taught mathematics to children from infancy to middle school and to adults in college classes and workshops.

AMANDA ARMSTRONG: Can you tell me about the purpose of the book?

LISA GINET: The purpose was to build this bridge between developmental psychologists and early childhood teachers. We’re trying to help educators develop their practice around developing children as mathematicians, eager and interested and flexible mathematicians. And part of doing that, we’re trying to understand how children learn—we try to understand what mechanisms and things are underlying children’s mathematical thinking in their development.

People who are doing more purely academic research and cognitive development, they usually care about what’s happening with children in classrooms, and they want to know what the people on the ground think and understand. And teachers are also interested in understanding more about what academic research psychologists have to say. They don’t have time to always dig in and follow research, but they are interested in what it means. We thought it would be fun and interesting to try to broker the conversation and see what came of it.

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ARMSTRONG: In your book, how do you blend the voices of the researcher, the classroom teacher, and the teacher educator?

GINET: After we decided on the psychologists who have published research related to early math learning, we read some of their studies and interviewed them. Seven developmental psychologists are featured in the book: Susan Levine, Kelly Mix, David Uttal, Susan Goldin-Meadow, Robert Siegler, Arthur Baroody, and Erin Maloney. We took a set of their published writings and our interviews and crafted a section in each chapter of the book called “What the Research Says.”

Then we had a group of teachers read this section and come together in a seminar setting to dialogue. We synthesized points from that seminar, identified questions from the teachers, shared those with the researcher, and got the researcher’s response, which is included in the chapter. Also in the seminar, the teachers generated ideas for classroom practice that are included in each chapter.

ARMSTRONG: One of the chapters is about math anxiety. Can you tell me what the research says about that in relation to young children?

GINET: One of the things that surfaced prominently as we were working was what we called the chicken or the egg problem: Do you become anxious about math and therefore not learn it well because the anxiety gets in the way, or does a lack of understanding or poor skills lead you to become anxious about math? And it maybe doesn’t matter which comes first, and perhaps both mechanisms are working both ways all along. It’s hard to tell. There’s not been a lot of research done, actually, with very young children.

Studies indicate there does seem to be a relationship between the child’s math anxiety and the math anxiety of adults in their world. There also seems to be some relationship between a child’s math anxiety and their ability or propensity to do more sophisticated math or to use more sophisticated strategies.

When they’re young and have a relatively small amount of math experience compared to high school students, generally making those experiences of math activities and conversations more joyful and less stressful will likely reduce their developing math anxiety. Also, strategies that allow children to engage in multiple ways are likely to get more children involved and build more children’s understanding, making them less likely to become anxious.

ARMSTRONG: Based on those findings, what are some ideas teachers mentioned during the seminar?

GINET: Some points discussed were having mathematical thinking be about real-world problems that need math to solve them and establishing a growth-focused learning community.

We also talked a lot about math games as good meaningful situations and also as ways to involve parents and children in math learning together. Teachers had found in their experience that playing good, easy-to-explain math games with the kids at school and encouraging parents to play them at home gave them a context that everybody understood and was not very stressful, and parents felt like they were doing something good for their kids’ math. They also mentioned doing a math game night with families or setting up an area for math games during drop-off.

ARMSTRONG: Another topic presented in the book is gestures and math. What does the research say about this subject?

GINET: Studies show that there seems to be a point in learning where the gestures show a child is beginning to think about something and it’s coming out in their gestures even though they cannot verbalize their new understanding. We at the Collaborative always thought it was important to remind teachers that gestures matter and that they’re another way of communicating, particularly when you’re working with young children, whether they are learning one language, two languages, or multiple languages. When they’re in preschool and kindergarten, their ability to explain their thought process in any of the languages they speak is not very well developed.

ARMSTRONG: When you had this conversation with teachers, what were some of their realizations?

GINET: They discussed teaching and running the classroom in English but having children that don’t know as much English. They were talking about how gesture helps with language learning and saying that gesture can be a useful tool, even a cross-language tool. Teachers also brought up the idea of total physical response, where teachers encourage children to gesture to show what they mean.

ARMSTRONG: It sounds like the process of creating the book was a very fruitful way for teachers to talk to other teachers.

GINET: Right—and we’re hoping that this book can be a jumping-off point for teachers to discuss what’s happening in their classrooms and learn from each other.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • Math
  • Prekindergarten
  • K-2 Primary