The Association Between Preschool Children’s Socio-emotional Functioning and Their Mathematical Skills

Record: Dobbs, J., Doctoroff, G. L., Fisher, P. H., & Arnold, D. H. (2006). The association between preschool children’s socio-emotional functioning and their mathematical skills. Journal Of Applied Developmental Psychology, 27(2), 97-108. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2005.12.008 (Article)

Summary: There is extensive research about the relation of social-emotional  and behavioral functioning to academic skills in children, especially in respect to reading achievement. This research tends to focus more on older school aged children, though it is shown that it also affects children as young as preschoolers. These studies also focus more on externalizing problems as apposed to internalizing symptoms and their affect on academic achievement. This study looks at those areas that are less heavily focused on. It specifically looks at the relation between preschoolers’ math skills and their socio-emotional strengths and weaknesses.

The study looked to answer this main question about the relation of preschoolers’ math skills and socio-emotional functioning. They also looked at the possible gender differences of those two factors, socio-emotional functioning and math skills, and how they might affect each other. The authors proposed four hypotheses that they were looking to find answers to. First, of the three socio-emotional strengths measured (initiative, self-control, and attachment) they expected initiative to be the one that is most closely related to math skills. Second, they wanted to see if self-control was related to math achievement. Third, of three protective factors, attachment was expected to be the poorest predictor of math skills. Fourth, internalizing and externalizing symptoms are linked to math skills and attention problems are believed to show the strongest relationship.

The study was conducted in Springfield, Massachusetts. Two Head Start centers participated with a a total of eight classrooms in the study. Six of the classrooms were were half-day and the other two were full-day programs. Those eight classrooms contained one hundred eight children (45 boys and 63 girls). The average age of the children was 56.6 months or just over four years and seven months old. The races of the children varied with 44 being African-American, 41 Hispanic, 11 Caucasian, 6 Asian-American, and 6 multiracial children. The median family income of the children participating was $13,229. The 18 teachers of the classrooms also participated in the study.

During the study, teachers completed questionnaires about each of the child’s behavior within the classroom. Information on the children’s demographics and their socio-emotional strengths, as rated by the teachers, were taken from the Head Start records. A standardized test was given to each child by doctoral clinical psychology students to assess each child’s math skills. Half of the classrooms participating were randomly selected and previously completed a math intervention. The control classrooms received no changes to their lesson plans or styles of teaching.

Four different measures were used in the study. The first was the Test of Early Mathematics Ability, second addition (TEMA-2). This tested emergent math ability in concepts of relative magnitude, counting, calculation, and number facts. The second measure used  was the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment (DECA). This is a behavior rating scale contains 40 items. It was completed near the end of the school year. Three scales of the DECA measure the protective fators: initiative, self-control, and attachment.  Behavioral concerns are the fourth scale. This screening covers problems such as internalizing and externalizing symptoms. The third measure was a Teacher Report Form (TRF). Teachers filled out this form after eight months of teaching. In the TRF teachers rated the frequency of internalizing and externalizing symptoms of the child. The fourth measure used was an analytic plan.

The study concluded that participatoin in the intervention greatly increased children’s schores in math as measured by their scores on the TEMA-2. The study also found that initiative, self-control, and attachment positively influenced math skills. The DECA concluded that behavioral concerns negatively influenced math skills. TRF scores and internalizing TRF scores also had a negative correlation to math skills, as did the subscales of withdrawal, social problems, and attention problems. An additional finding of the study was that there was no significant difference in the relation between math skills and socio-emotional functioning  among boys and girls; gender did not matter. When looking at socio-emotional strength the teachers ratings on the DECA showed that girls had higher initiative, self-control, and attachment and boys had more behavioral problems. Boys scored higher than girls for attention problems and girls showed more of an improvement from intervention. Furthermore, participation in math intervention was shown to decrease behavior problems across a wide range of categories.

One limitation discussed was the the small sample size of children whose math skills were assessed. A larger sample may be able to find additional information about the relation between math skills and socio-emotional functioning. The authors also suggest that in a future study should look into the mechanisms of the changes in math skills and socio-emotional functioning. Another suggestion for future researches on this topic is that future studies should pay attention to the long-term effects of academic intervention. This would include asking questions about how long the effects last. An additional limitation is that there was no data collected from the classrooms before the interventions took place. The study used an ethnically diverse selection of student but did not make it possible to take into account the cultural influences that accompanied them. Future researchers can include measures of socio-emotional functioning to improve findings and more research is needed for the processes controlling the relationship between this and academics. These factors can greatly improve the findings and information gathered in any future study.

Appraisal: I thought this was a great study because it looked at factors that are not usually assessed in other studies. It specifically targeted the math skills of preschoolers because those are two factors that are not normally considered when a study on social emotional functioning and academics are concerned. I also appreciated the diverse ethnic nature of the study. Having a majority of the participants not being Caucasian also provided new understanding to this topic.