What predicts children’s acuity for learning math in school? The ability to estimate the number of objects in a group was correlated with later success in math, according to research from psychologists at the University of Missouri. The researchers analyzed children’s estimative abilities and found that those who possessed limited quantitative assessment skills were more likely to have problems with learning math later on.

The study surveyed 68 children—35 boys and 33 girls—between three and four years old who were attending a Title I preschool. The researchers evaluated the children’s ability to make quantitative estimates, their intelligence, and parental education, among other factors. They found that the children who demonstrated difficulties in estimating the number of things in a group were 2.4 times more likely to have a mathematical learning disability later on than their peers.

The trouble with math comes not only from inability to estimate, but also from challenges in linking numerals’ symbolic value with their real world significance. Children who had problems with understanding numerals were 3.6 to 4.5 times more likely to encounter difficulties in learning math. This corroborates previous research as well as provides evidence for the phenomena in younger children.

Study co-author David Geary, professor of psychological sciences at MU explained, “Lack of skill at estimating group size may impede a child’s ability to learn the concept of how numerals symbolize quantities and how those quantities related to each other.” He also indicated that this can lead to problems with math in school and, according to some studies, possible difficulties with employment later on.

Parents can help young children to understand numbers and quantities by emphasizing both concepts and practicing estimation techniques. The authors suggest that parents point out quantities in everyday situations and ask “how many?” whenever children encounter a group of things. It may also help to explain to children that the world around them can be represented by numbers. This may help children prepare for learning math in school.

This research is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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