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How does attention matter to developing numeracy? Can a combined executive and early numeracy intervention help children build stronger foundations for later maths?

The Cognitive and Educational Foundations of Preschool Maths:(not) as easy as 1, 2, 3.

Maths area dispaly in a Nursery classroom 

New developments!                     

The ONE ("Orchestrating Numeracy and the Executive") Programme is an exciting early years programme, in which we have been collaborating with nursery school educators to develop combined executive and numeracy early activities for educators and preschool children. Sylvia Gattas and Rosemary O'Connor are lead researchers for this project, with Rebecca Merkley (Carleton) and Steven Howard (University of Wollongong, Australia) as co-Investigators. Zach Hawes (OISE, Toronto), Vic Simms (Ulster), Kathy Sylva and Ted Melhuish (Oxford), Emma Blakey (Sheffield) are our team of expert advisors. 

To learn more about the ONE, please read our blog post here.

Sylvia is also developing a parallel line of work on how executive functions, affective self-regulation and early numeracy interact for 4-, 6- and 8-year-olds, by studying their attention while they play number tasks, in schools, in the lab and also at home with online testing technology. If you are a parent / guardian and want to know more, you can read about the study here and / or you can write to us here. This project also involves a collaboration with Alex Fraser, the lead researcher behind GazeScorer. You can read about GazeScorer here.

How did we start this work?

This line of work began by investigating how children learn early numeracy skills and is now working on fostering these foundations by developing an executive and early numeracy intervention for preschool classrooms in collaboration with educators. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, this line of work has generated an exciting collaboration between psychologists, education experts, teachers and preschool educators. In the United Kingdom, few studies have investigated multiple complementary contributions of educational and cognitive factors to preschool numeracy. Most preschool interventions have also focused either on executive skills or number skills, but not brought them together. 

This project began (in 2011-2014) by focusing on understanding why attention and executive functions in preschoolers relate to developing number cognition. Building on that work, in 2016-2019 we pursued further longitudinal and mechanistic questions about why and how attention and executive functions matter to early numeracy. We used a number of complementary approaches to investigating this question: studying concurrent and longitudinal relationships across the many skills children bring to the task of learning to be numerate, but also qualitative investigations of their preschool environment. We found concurrent and longitudinal relationships between executive and number skills over the preschool period. In 2021 - 2023, we will be working with educators to develop and test the feasibility of a combined executive and numeracy intervention.

You can read about our findings in more detail in the public report we wrote for the Nuffield Foundation (2019), uploaded on the ABCD frontpage "reports" link here.

We hope, building on our findings, that we will now be better able to work in partnership with parents and preschool educators, so that children are best prepared for numeracy learning when they start formal education.


The one programme: 2021-2023                    

What have we done so far?

The ONE programme is an ongoing project that aims to provide children with a firmer grounding in maths during preschool through activities with maths content and embedded executive challenge.

At the start of 2022, our main team of researchers (Gaia Scerif, Rosie O'Connor and Sylvia Gattas) visited 15 preschools in the area surrounding Oxford and carried out various maths and executive function assessments with 193 three- and four-year-old children. We managed to see 180 of these children again in summer 2022, allowing us to see how their skills developed over a 5-month-period. Thank you to our wonderful project students for help with the second set of data collection: Francesca Plaskett, Hannah Andrews, Libby Kent, Abigail Heath and Angelina Bogdanova. 

We have also used interviews, observations and questionnaires to understand more about the early years practitioners that we collaborate with. Of course we are keen to understand whether the programme has benefits for children, but we also want to optimise the programme to be as helpful and doable as possible for the fantastic early years educators that we work with. 

The intervention

Our intervention is composed of four weekly professional development sessions with practitioners and a set of 25 activities containing maths content with embedded EF challenge. These included adaptations of familiar games such as Hopscotch as well as newly designed tasks. Each activity contains mathematical content from one of three mathematical categories that align with the targets outlined in the Early Years Foundation Stage statutory framework: spatial awareness and shape, patterning and order and counting and numbers, as well as some form of executive challenge. They were presented on activity cards, detailing instructions for practitioners on how to deliver the activity. 

We visited half of the recruited settings to deliver this intervention and hand over the activity cards; the other half acted as business-as-usual control settings, in which no training or activity cards were provided. These settings carried on with their normal scheduled timetables for the duration of intervention. Practitioners were asked to carry out 3 activities per week over a 12-week period, including the 4 weeks of practitioner development training, ideally one from each category, reporting on what went well and any difficulties that cropped up.

At the end of 2022, we are returning to the business as usual control group settings to re-deliver the intervention to those who did not initially receive any training or activities. Thank you to our new team member Amy Godfrey for all her help during this re-delivery phase.

What have we found so far

Our findings so far have been generally very positive. At most of our settings, practitioners were able to meet the criteria of 3 activities per week at least 80% of the time. We also found that practitioners had more knowledge on both executive functions and early maths skills after the four weeks of professional development sessions. 

Practitioners generally viewed the activities as fun and adaptable to each setting’s daily routine, whilst the training was also seen to be beneficial from a confidence and educational perspective. 

“It’s been great to have more of a maths focus. The PD helped the practitioners to focus more on the content and aims of the activities that we do.” (practitioner at one of our intervention settings)

Practitioners did mention barriers that became apparent during the intervention process. The biggest of these we found to be staffing issues, due to both shortages and illness, which reduced capacity for settings to plan and carry out the activities. We are keen to work together with practitioners to make the intervention as fun and adaptable to their routines as possible. 

It was excellent to see that children's ability improved in a range of different maths and executive function tasks over the 5 month period. Excitingly, we also found that the intervention may be effective in promoting some early maths and EF skills, particularly for those children from low income backgrounds. 

Maths Talk and early maths skills: 2016-2019                   

Over 2016 - 2019, we visited 231 preschoolers, and followed 170 preschoolers twice, to study their improving maths skills before entering school. Our wonderful team of researchers worked with settings from across Oxfordshire, including charity preschools, school based settings, and work place nurseries.

In line with our longitudinal analysis plan (pre-registered on Open Science Framework), we collected and analysed data on a range of tests at two time points (in the early Spring and the Summer of 2017, and again in 2018). These were all age appropriate ‘game’ based tasks to measure attention skills and mathematical knowledge.

At the same time, we gained an insight into the maths environment of our children in each setting through interviews, observations, and questionnaires. We have also conducted cognitive and educational tests, to allow us to compare the children to age-specific national averages. We will then use this information to see if some of the effects we see in children's mathematical development is linked to their language, general skills or the attention / executive and prior maths skills. We replicated links between attention, executive and maths early skills for the children who took part in the study, and learnt about the power of "Maths Talk" in educators. 

You can read about "Maths Talk" findings here, and broader study findings here.

maths gamemaths gamemaths displaymaths display



We collaborated with Dr Fiona Simmons and her team at John Moores University, Liverpool, to share procedures and data in order to create a larger data-set and test whether our conclusions converge across two rather large but different samples. Read more here.

Funded by the British Academy, we are also working in partnership with a wonderful South African research team who are looking at the interactions between motor control, executive functions and socio-economic background and more recently links between executive functions and early numeracy for families with very low income in Cape Town. Read more here.

 Lead Researchers

Lead researchers, working with Prof. Gaia Scerif on the Nuffield project, were Emma Dove, Megan Von Spreckelsen and Ilse Coolen. Annelot de Rechteren van Hemert and Sylvia Gattas are developing the research questions further through her DPhil here at Oxford and worked / are working as Graduate Research Assistants on this line of work.  

Rebecca Merkley was the lead researcher in the first part of this work, as part of her DPhil here. Rebecca is now part of the project team as a close collaborator and independent researcher at Carleton University, Canada, as was Daniel Ansari, at the Numerical Cognition Lab, University of Western Ontario, Canada, for the first "fact-finding" part of this work. With Rebecca and Daniel, co-Investigators on the first project funded by the Nuffield Foundation were Vicky Murphy (Education, Oxford) and Ann Dowker (Psychology, Oxford) with a team of expert advisors (Kathy Sylva, Keely Cook, Dr Fiona Simmons).

Our new intervention co-development project now welcomes Sylvia Gattas, Rosie O'Connor, as well as Rebecca Merkley (Carleton) and Steven Howard (University of Wollongong, Australia) as co-Investigators. Zach Hawes (OISE, Toronto), Vic Simms (Ulster), Kathy Sylva and Ted Melhuish (Oxford), Emma Blakey (Sheffield) are our team of expert advisors.

 Funded by

Clarendon Fund & Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grants to Rebecca.

Nuffield Foundation project "Cognitive and Educational Foundations of Preschool Mathematics: (not) as easy as 1,2,3" to Gaia and Co-investigators.

Nuffield Foundation project "Fostering resilience by injecting executive challenge into maths" to Gaia and Co-Investigators.

Related to: British Academy project "Understanding barriers and potential of early childhood education in low-income South Africa: Leveraging children's executive functions."

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