The Skills That Count Most for Academic Success

Can you guess which skill set in kindergarteners best predicts their academic success in elementary school? Is it a 5-year-old’s literacy level, knowledge of math, ability to stay on task, or talent for making friends? UC Irvine education professor Greg Duncan and his colleagues published a study in 2011 that analyzed close to 20,000 kindergartners, assessing them in kindergarten and then following their test results in reading and math through elementary school. What did the key predictor for academic success turn out to be? Math skills. Children who learned the most math in kindergarten tended to have the highest math and reading scores years later.

“It was very surprising,” said Duncan. “Everyone says reading is most important, and if a child can read by third grade, the chance of dropping out of school is so much lower. But it was math that stood out as serving the kids best in promoting later achievement. Reading was next most important, and then attention skills were third most important.”

Duncan’s findings came as no surprise at The Children’s School. Here, we know math is as essential for understanding how the world works as the spoken and written word. Math is a practical and needed tool, but it is also a language, a way to describe the physical world and the forces that govern it. Indeed, Einstein called mathematics “the poetry of logical ideas.” Furthermore, math teaches problem-solving, a habit of mind that is crucial for children to learn and practice.

As early as 1909, Maria Montessori observed that young children can master mathematical concepts when they are presented concretely. She invented an array of ingenious materials that encourage mathematical thinking. A century after her pedagogical innovations, neurological studies have shown that when children manipulate objects with their fingers and work on proportions and patterns in a visual, tangible way, they are developing the brain regions used for mathematical calculations.

Hence, at TCS, teachers introduce mathematical ideas with blocks, buttons, rods, shells and beads. As children handle, sort, grade and arrange these appealing materials, they develop their spatial awareness, grouping skills and ability to spot patterns. Eventually they are able to represent complex abstractions like place value, multiplication and Venn diagrams with ease, using tangible objects.

This kind of “work” actually feels like play, making math enjoyable and intuitive. Duncan suggests that parents join in on the fun by playing board games (for counting practice) or games with cards and dice, which represent numbers as visual patterns. And there are always books to read that make numbers come to life—like Thing One and Thing Two happily wrecking a house—or that have lots of shapes to discuss, like the rabbit’s imaginary toys in Not a Box.

So mix a little visual reasoning into your family time! The research shows that a jigsaw puzzle or a round of dominoes can help build a mind for math.