What is it about?

What psychological mechanisms are behind children’s mathematical skills? Imagine you’re sitting in your first-grade math class and there is an orange squirrel jumping from branch to branch outside the classroom window. Will you watch the little animal doing its breakneck acrobatics or stay focused on the subtraction task? Most children would probably follow the squirrel, but those who had the urge to watch it but stayed on the math task: they have just experienced inhibition. Inhibition is the ability to deliberately override a dominant or automatic response when needed. When you think back to school, this is needed, for instance, in learning math whenever the correct answer to a question is not obvious, and the task requires thorough thinking. Inhibition is also important to remain focused and persistent and to avoid distractions. Besides inhibition, mental set shifting comes in handy, when you need to switch between different math tasks, such as between adding and subtracting. Further, updating the working memory (aka short time memory) is key to manipulating information we have just learned: holding the results of a math task in our memory and doing further calculations with it. These three psychological mechanisms are called executive functions. In this study, we focused on preschool children, because the earlier in life we invest in children, the greater the positive change we can promote. We reviewed over 4000 scientific articles on the topic and finally compiled 363 results from 30481 preschool children from around the world. Combining prior study results is frequently done in political or educational decision-making to find developmental trends and to increase the accuracy and certainty in our findings corroborated by a large number of children. Our combined findings showed that children who can inhibit being distracted, shift easily between different tasks, and update the information they have just learned score high on math tests. We also found evidence that inhibition, shifting, and updating are equally important for math skills. Finally, we discovered that the executive functions–math link depends on how exactly these psychological mechanisms were measured.

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Why is it important?

The problem is that students who perform low on inhibition, shifting, and updating tend to perform worse in math tests as well. Because math skills predict not only school success but also success later in life, we need to know how exactly executive functions and math skills are associated, preferably before children enter school. Our findings can help create interventions for children struggling with math learning and stimulate new research questions—such as how the link between executive functions and math skills changes with age—which we will investigate.


It is important we investigate young children’s math learning processes as they are key for children’s further success not only in school but also in the job. That is one of the reasons our findings are so important for research and practice.

Valentin Emslander
University of Luxembourg

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: The relation between executive functions and math intelligence in preschool children: A systematic review and meta-analysis., Psychological Bulletin, May 2022, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/bul0000369.
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