Parents transfer their maths skills to their children

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MathskillsWEBA University of Pittsburgh study exploring inter-generational transmission – the concept of parental influence on an offspring’s behaviour or psychology – showed the first evidence of a distinct transfer from parent to child of  mathematic capabilities.

“Our findings suggest an intuitive sense for numbers has been passed down – knowingly or unknowingly – from parent to child. Meaning, essentially, the maths skills of parents tend to ‘rub off’ on their children,” said lead researcher Dr Melissa E Libertus, an assistant professor in the department of psychology and a research scientist in the university’s Learning Research and Development Centre. “This research could have significant ramifications for how parents are advised to talk about maths and numbers with their children and how teachers go about teaching children in classrooms.”

Within the study, Pitt’s researchers found that the performance levels for early school-aged children on standardised mathematic tests could be reliably predicted by their parent’s performance on similar examinations. Specifically, they observed major correlations in parent-child performance in such key areas as mathematical computations, number-fact recall, and word problem analysis. Surprisingly, the researchers also found that children’s intuitive sense of numbers – the ability to know that 20 jelly beans are more than 10 jelly beans without first counting them – is predicted by their parents’ intuitive sense of numbers. Researchers determined that such close result parallels could not have been produced through similar institutional learning backgrounds because their previous research showed that this intuitive sense of numbers is present in infancy.

The findings represent the first evidence of inter-generational transmission of unlearned, nonverbal numerical competence from parents to children. While separate studies have pointed to the existence of inter-generational transmission of cognitive abilities, only a select few have examined parental influences in specific academic domains, such as mathematics.

Libertus said the study is an important step toward understanding the multifaceted parental influences on children’s mathematic abilities. Her future studies will examine why this transference of mathematic capability occurs.
“We believe the relationship between a parent and a child’s math capabilities could be some combination of hereditary and environmental transmission,” said Libertus. “We look forward to future research endeavours that will explicitly examine the degree to which parents pass down key genetic traits and create an in-home learning environment that is conducive to producing high-achieving math students.”

For the present study, the math abilities of parents and children were assessed using the appropriate sub-tests from the Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Achievement, a nationally recognised standardised examination of baseline math ability. Children completed three sub-tests designed to gauge their capabilities in mathematical computations, basic number-fact recall, and word problems with visual aids. Parents completed a math fluency sub-test as a measure of mathematical ability, and they were surveyed on the importance of children developing certain math skills.

The study sampled 54 children between the ages of 5 and 8 as well as 51 parents – 46 mothers and five fathers – between the ages of 30 and 59. In terms of racial demographics of participating children, 45 were Caucasian, five biracial, three African American, and one Asian. Forty-six participating parents had at least a college degree, and all possessed at least a high school diploma.

Although growing evidence suggests a link between children’s maths skills and their ability to estimate numerical quantities using the approximate number system (ANS), little is known about the sources underlying individual differences in ANS acuity and their relation with specific mathematical skills. To examine the role of intergenerational transmission of these abilities from parents to children, the current study assessed the ANS acuities and maths abilities of 54 children (5–8 years old) and their parents, as well as parents’ expectations about children’s math skills. Children’s ANS acuity positively correlated with their parents’ ANS acuity, and children’s math abilities were predicted by unique combinations of parents’ ANS acuity and math ability depending on the specific math skill in question. These findings provide the first evidence of intergenerational transmission of an unlearned, non-verbal numerical competence and are an important step toward understanding the multifaceted parental influences on children’s math abilities.

Melissa E Libertus, Emily J Braham

University of Pittsburgh material
Developmental Science abstract

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