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Beyond IQ: Youngsters Who Can Focus on the Task at Hand Do Better in Math

Attention span and reasoning may get higher marks than intelligence, especially in math



© Jorge Delgado/iStockphoto

Turns out that sheer intelligence is not enough to become a young math whiz. It also takes a good attention span and training your mind to "self regulate" or focus on the task at hand.

The measure for academic success for decades has been a person's intelligence quotient, or IQ. But new research published in the journal Child Development says that a thought process called "executive functioning," which governs the ability to reason and mentally focus, also plays a critical role in learning, especially when it comes to math skills.

"It's often thought that kids don't do well because they're dumb, and there's nothing we can do about it," says lead study author Clancy Blair, associate professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University. "But not only is executive function pivotal for academic success, it's amenable to training, and this training might make a big difference in a child?s ability."

In Blair's study, the parts of the brain's so-called executive function, which is linked to math ability in preschoolers, are "working memory" and "inhibitory control." Working memory is the ability to keep information or rules in mind while performing mental tasks. For instance, when children first learn arithmetic, they have to keep the rules of addition in mind when they add numbers together.

Inhibitory control is the ability to halt automatic impulses and focus on the problem at hand. For example, people use inhibitory control when they decide to take different routes to their jobs, because they have to make a conscious effort to override the regular route they otherwise would almost automatically follow. Although the researchers found a correlation between inhibitory control and math skills, they have yet to discover exactly how it works.

But Blair speculates that children with good inhibitory control are able, in essence, to multitask, or use known solution strategies in new ways—an ability which is required in most high-level mathematics. In math there are many ways to attack a problem. For instance, if someone had to add the same number four times, they could either add each number separately or use more efficient multiplication. Those children who can hold back their tendency to opt for the most obvious route (in this case addition) and spot a novel connection (like multiplication), tend to do better in math in the long run, Blair says.

In this study 141 healthy children between the ages of three and five years took a battery of psychological tests that measured their IQs and executive functioning. Researchers found that a child whose IQ and executive functioning were both above average was three times more likely to succeed in math than a kid who simply had a high IQ.

"[The fact] that executive function, even in children this young, is significantly related to early math performance suggests that if we can improve executive function, we can improve their academic performance," says Adele Diamond, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia.

Blair says that some tests of executive function can be used as training tools. A "backward digit span" test is a case in point: Person A recites a string of numbers, like 3, 6, 10, and person B has to respond with the same string, only in reverse order: 10, 6, 3. This task requires one to restrain his or her automatic inclination to mimic person A (inhibitory control), but also requires keeping the actual numbers in mind (working memory).

"Preschool curricula that focus on development of these skills and self-regulation are needed in a big way," Blair says. "There is a federal push to learn our numbers, our letters and our words, but a focus on the content, without a focus on the skills required to use that content, will end up with children being left behind."

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