Early training in mathematics can lead to academic success

Guest Article
This article was written by Madeline Harris. She is a graduate of Queen’s University with a degree in Psychology and English. She is actively pursuing a career in neuroscience and excited to be a part of the Brain Power Initiative.

Future academic success can be determined by a firm understanding of the basic concepts of mathematics at a very young age, say Douglas Clements and Julie Sarama from the Graduate School of Education at the University of Buffalo.1* This success is apparent not only in later mathematics performance, but also in subjects across the board including science and reading. However, many children throughout the world do not experience the degree of early education necessary to start this advancement process.

Children as young as three years have the potential to learn mathematics that is both “deep and broad”.1 Without the proper type of educational intervention, children who enter a classroom with less experience than their peers will continue to underperform by comparison. But according to Clements and Sarama, structured, research-based training has shown to be effective in increasing mathematical knowledge and bridging this gap.  In other words, children who enter a classroom at a lower academic level owing to a lack of learning opportunities in their early years are not necessarily destined to perpetuate this trend.

Key features of these supported research-based programs include the proper training and education of teachers,2 using familiar concepts and activities involving numbers as a foundation upon which to build,3 and assessing a child’s current mathematic abilities to identify an appropriate starting point.4 This means that teachers will introduce concepts such as quantity comparison and change using objects like blocks and puzzles with which children are already comfortable.

One of Clements and Sarama’s programs is called Building Blocks. In a 2007 study, children educated with the Building Blocks curriculum significantly outperformed children who were educated with a more traditional curriculum after 25 weeks of instruction.5 While the average pre-test scores for the traditional group and the Building Blocks group were similar, 8.44 and 9.67 respectively, the average post-test scores were 17.93 versus 29.46, a highly significant difference.

In addition to providing equal learning opportunities for children with different levels of experience, this training may also be effective in improving the potential negative effects of some teachers’ low expectations of children who typically underperform.6 With the research-based training, teachers are better able to observe the individual strengths of children and assess how to aid them in their continued academic growth.

As supported by the research above, teaching children mathematics should be less about “drilling basic facts” and more about building strong foundations at an early age that will better equip children for future academic growth.1 If this method of teaching is set forth, children will have the opportunity to succeed in learning key mathematical concepts no matter what their prior experience.


1. Clements DH, et al., Early Childhood Mathematics Intervention. Science 333, 968 (2011).

2. National Research Council, Mathematics in Early Childhood: Learning Paths Toward Excellence and Equity. Cross CT, Woods TA, Schwingruber H (eds.) (National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 2009.)

3. Clements DH, Sarama J. J Res Math Educ 38, 136 (2007).

4. Sarama J, Clements DH, Starkey P, Klein A, Wakeley A. J Res Educ Eff. 1, 89 (2008).

5. Clements DH, Sarama J. Effects of a Preschool Mathematics Curriculum: Summative Research on the Building Blocks Program. J Res Math Educ. 38(2), 136-163 (2007).

6. National Mathematics Advisory Panel, Foundations for Success: The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. (US Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Washington, DC, 2008).

Come-back of the abacus to teach children math

The abacus is making a come-back in after-school programs in Canada. These programs are teaching children how to do complex mathematical calculations without using pen or paper. The Canadian programs are based on ones that are common in both India and China. The appeal of them is the promise of improved math skills which is attractive given that Canadian children are starting to fall back in standardized tests.
The largest chain of schools (UCMAS) has more than 2,500 students in nearly 40 locations in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. In the late 1990s, abacus schools started spreading throughout Asia and came to North America in the early 2000s. At an abacus school in Vancouver, Norie Ikoma has seen the roster for her abacus school go from two students in 2004 to nearly 100 this year. A second-generation abacus teacher whose parents operate five schools in Japan, she likes to keep her classes small.
“I like working one-on-one with each of my students,” she said. “The abacus helps them understand numbers and I like to see their confidence grow.”
To start, children do basic addition and subtraction using the abacus. Then they build up their skills to solving difficult multiplication and division problems through the visualization of the beads, known as mental abacus.
While most of the interest in abacus schools comes from the Southeast Asian community, Canadians of all communities are concerned that schools are not doing a good enough job teaching children the the basics of math. This has led to the growth of tutoring services such as abacus classes.
Those who see the value of abacus classes say that the ease in calculation helps children in the classroom enabling them to devote attention to the broader mathematical concepts behind the lesson.
Research into the benefits of abacus schools is still in the early stages.
“Many children get a lot of fun out of it … and it’s clear that it’s a really astonishingly good way of building mental arithmetic skills,” said Michael Frank, a psychology professor at Stanford. But “the jury is still out,” he said, as to what broader, more long-term benefits there may be to studying the abacus.



Mathematics plays key role in child development

The quantitative, spatial and logical reasoning competencies of mathematics form a cognitive foundation for thinking and learning across subjects, according to the research of University of Buffalo faculty members Douglas H. Clements and Julie Samara. Consequently, all children need a sound knowledge of mathematics in their early years.

Mathematics is not just one more subject to be learned as preschool children’s knowledge of mathematics predicts their success later on in school. It also predicts reading achievement, even better than early reading skills.

All children can develop mathematical knowledge and skill, say Samara and Clements.

“Young children have the potential to learn mathematics that is both deep and broad,” says Samara.

The researchers have developed educational interventions that have been shown to be effective in aiding children learn mathematics. These interventions are structured around research-based paths of learning based on a synthesis of research in cognitive and developmental psychology and mathematics education.

The basic approach of Building Blocks is to find the mathematics in, and developing mathematics from, children’s activity. The program is intended to help children extend and apply mathematics to their daily activities, from building blocks to art and stories, puzzles and games.

Stay tuned for more information on this topic (or subscribe using the box on the right) – one of our scientists will be providing a more detailed summary of this research.