Counting counts for young children’s math performance in school

The Count from Sesame Street

Does your preschooler know how to count from one to ten? How about from one to twenty?

And is the child really counting or just reciting the number sequence?

Preschool-aged children can know the order of numbers from one to ten or twenty, much as they know how to recite the letters of the alphabet in their proper order. But counting is not only about knowing the numbers in order; it involves assigning each number to an object being counted in a given set (e.g. the ducks on a page in a book) and understanding that the last number in the sequence is the total number of objects in the set.

One reason the distinction between recitation and counting is important on a practical level is that preschoolers who are able to both recite numbers and count with them perform better at math when they enter elementary school, according to this study.

Teaching counting can be a simple matter of integrating it into day-to-day activities, as the researchers recommend:

“When adults read books with children, they can count the ducks on the page. They might count the leaves that fall to the ground outside or the number of carrots at lunchtime.”

I think regularly using math in everyday life also teaches kids that math isn’t a weird and difficult subject. Many kids fear math and see numbers as abstract nonsense. Incorporating math into simple daily activities (counting money, telling time, sharing toys or candies equally among friends) may show them otherwise.

Synaptic Sunday #12 – Developing resilience in the face of stressful circumstances

Before getting to these three good posts/articles on resilience, stress, and the human brain, please take some time to find a reputable charity to donate to in support of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Here are tips for finding a reputable charity and avoiding scams (the site, Charity Navigator, rates charities on a number of factors) – and here’s a recommended list of Hurricane Sandy charities from another site, Charity Watch, which also rates charities.

1) Summaries of talks on stress and resilience given during Day 2 of the Culture, Mind, and Brain Conference
I love how these talks highlight the interplay of genes and the biology of the human body with social and cultural factors. Some surprising findings (for instance read about the first talk on rat pups separated from their mothers for an 18 hour stretch, and how a simple change in the environment helped mother-pup relations proceed on normal terms afterwards, leading to no long-term negative consequences for the pup).

2) Can people learn to adapt better to highly stressful circumstances?
Some of the factors common to people who adjust better to life after a traumatic event include:
a) realistic optimism (knowing and accepting what you can change and what you can’t, and focusing all your efforts on what you can change)
b) social support
c) good regular health habits (e.g. eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking up meditation).

While there is a genetic component to resilience, Southwick said its influence is less important than one might expect.

“The biggest insight that we have realized is that many people are far more resilient that they think and have a far greater capacity to rise to the occasion,” he added.

3) 10 Tips for Developing Resilience
These suggestions have some overlap with what’s been discussed so far, and it’s a good list to start with if you’d like to change the way you react to adverse circumstances. Keep in mind that these tips refer to mental habits – they can be cultivated, but don’t produce instantaneous or 100% consistent results. They take time and patience to work on.

Does an attitude of self-affirmation help you notice your mistakes?

You're awesome image found on The Identity Specialist blog

At a first glance, the findings from the following neuroscience study seem counterintuitive. Does giving yourself a pat on the back help you notice your mistakes? Wouldn’t it make you more complacent? But it turns out that self-affirmation, as it’s defined in this study and others, amounts to more than telling yourself that you’re awesome. It’s about reminding yourself of who you are, what you most believe in and identify with.

Let’s have a look at the study.

38 undergraduates were asked to rank six different kinds of values (religious, social, etc.) by order of personal importance. The undergraduates who were randomly assigned to the ‘self-affirmation group’ were then asked to write why their most highly ranked value is important to them; those in the ‘non-affirmation group’ were asked to write why their most highly ranked value isn’t important to them. This request sets up the non-affirmation group to undermine themselves to some extent and betray what they feel is important to them.

After the writing exercise, subjects from both groups were run through a task that commonly measures executive functioning: the “go/no go” task.

… they were told to press a button whenever the letter M (the “go” stimulus) appeared on a screen; when the letter W (the “no-go” stimulus) appeared, they were supposed to refrain from pressing the button. To increase the sense of threat in the task, participants were given negative feedback (“Wrong!”) when they made a mistake.


During this task researchers recorded their brain activity with EEG. In the self-affirmation group (which performed better on the task than the non-affirmation group), subjects’ brain activity showed a stronger response to errors. Self-affirmation seemed to be associated with increased processing of errors.

People often get defensive about messing up; they hate having their mistakes pointed out to them and often prefer to live in blindness to their own errors. I think the tendency to get defensive is stronger in people who have a more incomplete or damaged sense of self; in that case they’d find the error especially threatening and would process it less deeply in order to protect themselves. Maybe in people who feel more steady, strong, and committed to who they are and what they believe in, an error isn’t such a threat to their sense of self and can be processed more deeply?

It’s also possible that the non-affirmation group was a bit discombobulated after having to write about why their most important belief really isn’t that important; it’s a strange request to make of someone, and the subjects might have thought that something was weird in the experiment and didn’t attend as much as they should have to the go/no-go task, or tried to figure out if there was something more complex going on than pressing buttons for the letter M vs. W. (Years ago in college when running a cognitive psych experiment I had a couple of subjects who seemed unusually tense and alert during the task, which involved naming pictures they saw on a computer screen. Afterwards they told me they kept waiting for a catch – that the task was too simple and that there must be some kind of trick. What the trick was, they weren’t sure, but they had tried to figure it out. Their reaction times were slower than average as a result, and some of the names they came up with for the pictures were odd.)

Studying musical training and brain development

A new study is underway to investigate the effects of 5 years of musical training on the brain, starting from when children are 6 or 7 years old. The children are participating in a program that gives kids a free education in music and free instruments; they’ll be compared to kids who are matched on age, socioeconomic background, and different cognitive measures but who don’t have a musical education.

This is an interesting study, but how will researchers interpret some of the findings? Let’s say the study shows improvements in various aspects of cognitive ability and social and emotional development throughout the five years of musical education. To what would we attribute this outcome? Is it something specific to music education, or would you see it in any long-term intensive extracurricular program that teaches kids something? Maybe you’d need to add a third group of kids to the study who are enrolled in a free non-musical education program that has a similar social/communal aspect to it.

Synaptic Sunday #11 – Adolescence and Anxiety Edition

1) Learning to Overcome Fear is Difficult for Teens

Compared to younger and older individuals of their species, both adolescent humans and mice on average have a stronger tendency to keep exhibiting a fear response to a threat even when the danger is gone.

In the human experiment, the fear response was initially elicited by pairing a visual stimulus (one of a sequence of yellow or blue images on a computer screen) with a harsh startling sound; in subsequent trials the same images appeared without any startling noise – leading to an extinction of the fear response in children and adults, but not in the adolescents, who kept showing a fear response to whatever image had once been paired with the noise.

As for the animal experiment, the article reports that the experimenters “used standard fear conditioning common in these types of animal studies.” (This is vaguely worded… did they use loud noises? Or pain?) The experimenters also measured neuronal activity in the mice:

… the research team found that the prelimbic region in the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that processes emotion, is activated during acquisition of fear, and the infralimbic prefrontal cortex is used to extinguish this fear association.

When compared to younger and older mice, adolescent mice didn’t exhibit the kinds of neuronal activity associated with fear extinction (this corresponded to their behavior – they continued to show a fear response over time, regardless of the fact that the danger/unpleasantness was no longer present). Even as they got older, the adolescent mice didn’t lose their fear response.

Related data from other studies with humans:

It is estimated that over 75 percent of adults with fear-related disorders can trace the roots of their anxiety to earlier ages.

It’s not clear how the persistent fear response in this experiment fits into the complex puzzle of excessive anxiety and its sources, people’s predispositions towards it, the reasons it persists (or doesn’t) into adulthood, and the ways in which it disrupts mental and physical functioning (also, adolescents with anxiety disorders have often reported that their symptoms started in childhood). And how do these results tie into other findings with teens that show a greater tendency for them to do something dangerous even if they understand the risks?

2) Anxiety Disorders in Children and Teens

An overview of different types of anxiety that can become excessive and interfere with daily life (e.g. social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.)

3) Blogging May Help Teens Deal With Social Distress

Most of the study participants were girls (though the experimenters reported that the results for the boys weren’t significantly different).

Maintaining a blog had a stronger positive effect on troubled students’ well-being than merely expressing their social anxieties and concerns in a private diary, according to the article published online in the APA journal Psychological Services. Opening the blog up to comments from the online community intensified those effects.

Maybe the effects were stronger for a public blog because the teens felt less isolated with their problems and felt relief that they could be heard; it turns out that when they opened the blogs up to comments, the response from other Internet users was almost always positive and encouraging (few to no trolls). I’m assuming the blogs were anonymous, making the teens less vulnerable to disruption in their lives offline and maybe helping them write more freely about their worries.

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Incidentally, the photo that was at the top of the post linked to a relevant write-up on “stressed out lab rats” – how rats living in chronic stress tend to make decisions out of habit, as if their constant stress doesn’t allow them to be more mentally flexible. There are definitely parallels to stressed out humans.

The Internet and Intelligence

Over time, IQ scores have been going up (the Flynn Effect), so the Internet and T.V. can’t be making us dumber, right?

A recent Der Spiegel article, Is the Internet Really Making Us Dumber? (which is also worth reading for the questions it raises about what IQ tests measure) brings up the idea that the Internet and other digital media aren’t making us dumber but are instead changing the way we think: developing certain kinds of mental skills while de-emphasizing others. So what’s de-emphasized?

One thing stands out, though: While young test subjects are particularly good at solving visual and logical tasks quickly, their vocabulary is increasing only minimally — unlike that of their parents… One possible reason for the change is that today’s young people read and write many short messages on Facebook and on their cell phones, but they rarely immerse themselves in books anymore.

(In addition to not immersing themselves in books, kids might also be participating less in involved conversations and other kinds of meaningful verbal interaction. Very young kids for instance are now being exposed to e-readers and e-books – a development that might be problematic if parents rely too heavily on them for story time. Some research shows that parents reading to kids from e-books tend to interact less with them about the story itself and ask them fewer questions than parents reading to kids from print books. That’s even assuming the parent is sitting and reading with the child, and not handing the child over entirely to the device and its captivating animations and sound effects.)

The brain could be adapting to deal with digital technology on a regular basis but there’s still a place (maybe increasingly unrecognized) for mental processing that isn’t fast-paced: rumination, patience, the ability to follow the developments of a complex verbal argument. People describe our world as “fast-paced,” and in many ways it is, but not everything about the world and our way of living, thinking, and relating to others is fast-paced (or ought to be).

Taking a break to enhance memory

Incorporate short breaks into your learning/studying/reading, and it’s more likely that you’ll retain the material better, even several days later.

However, not just any break will do. In the study cited at the link, the breaks involved “wakeful resting” – nothing too mentally taxing (the experimenters had participants sitting in the dark with eyes closed for ten minutes). In real life I guess you could sit back and relax for ten minutes but more likely you’d be checking email, answering the phone or getting up to walk around, and maybe some of those activities would interfere more with memory consolidation than quiet sedentary relaxation.

The study’s participants had to remember short stories. I’m not sure how long the stories were. Is it good to take breaks only after shorter chunks of material, or is this strategy still effective for bigger chunks? Does overall coherence of the material matter more than length? (e.g. where you’re stopping to take your break: mid-paragraph vs. mid-sentence?) Furthermore, the stories were presented aurally; would that make a difference – hearing the material you’re hoping to retain instead of reading it to yourself?

The participants in the study were elderly adults aging normally, a refreshing change from the usual practice of using college students (undergraduates are easy to recruit; you don’t even have to pay them, just make it mandatory for them to participate in research studies to fulfill some kind of course requirement). However at some point the experiment probably will be replicated with college students to see if all the results are generalizable to younger adults too.

Synaptic Sunday #10 – Mental Health and Life Expectancy

A mental health issue isn’t “all in your mind.” The mind arises from the brain, and the brain is a part of your body that closely interacts with the rest of your body.

1) Even Mild Mental Health Problems Linked to Reduced Life Expectancy

This was from a study of 68,000 adults ages 35 and over in the U.K.:

Their results reveal that people who experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression had a lower life expectancy than those without any such symptoms.

Even people with minor symptoms of mental health problems seemed to have a higher risk of death from several major causes, including cardiovascular disease, according to the researchers.

And it’s not just a matter of poorer health behaviors. The researchers did try to control for factors like weight, eating habits, exercise, drinking, etc. and still found associations between these mental health symptoms and disease. (Granted they didn’t control for all possible factors, but they did try to account for some basic lifestyle choices that strongly impact health.)

Having poorer mental health doesn’t automatically doom you to a shorter life. No one can say what your individual outcome will be. What the study is showing is that on average people with poorer mental health have a shorter life expectancy compared to people with good mental health. As a preventative measure, to increase the odds in your favor that you’ll live longer and with a higher quality of life, don’t ignore your psychological distress or any other symptoms indicative of poor mental health. The effects ripple out to all areas of your life.

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2) Psychological distress linked to life expectancy- experts respond

Here’s a post with some comments from a few researchers and doctors on the study in the first link; the post includes some comments on potential weaknesses in the study and what can be researched next (for instance, what are the best interventions?). There are multiple ways that psychological distress can be linked to poorer health and shorter lifespan. Chronic stress damages the body and increases the chances of physical illnesses. People with poorer mental health might be more isolated and have less of a social support network. Maybe when they’re physically healthy they can get by, but when they come down with a physical illness they may neglect to get it treated. This is a fruitful area of research.

Synaptic Sunday #9 – Vivid Memory Edition

1) Why Does a Vivid Memory ‘Feel So Real?’

Researchers found that vivid memory and real perceptual experience share “striking” similarities at the neural level, although they are not “pixel-perfect” brain pattern replications.

and

“Our study has confirmed that complex, multi-featured memory involves a partial reinstatement of the whole pattern of brain activity that is evoked during initial perception of the experience. This helps to explain why vivid memory can feel so real.”

Are vivid memories more accurate than non-vivid memories? Less vulnerable to fabrication and distortion? A memory can feel quite vivid but could be made up in part. Maybe there are certain aspects of a scene that we remember more accurately and other parts that we fill-in, even for a memory that feels like a powerfully accurate recording playing in our minds.

As always, it’s important to distinguish between the accuracy of the memory and the confidence people have in the accuracy of the memory. Are we good judges of how accurately we’ve remembered something?

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2) Psychologists Link Emotion to Vividness of Perception and Creation of Vivid Memories

Have you ever wondered why you can remember things from long ago as if they happened yesterday, yet sometimes can’t recall what you ate for dinner last night?

Marching to the beat of your own drummer works…

… if you don’t mind making music all by yourself?

New research written up in a Science Daily article called, Dont Get Mad, Get Creative: Social Rejection Can Fuel Imaginative Thinking claims the following:

A study by a Johns Hopkins University business professor finds that social rejection can inspire imaginative thinking, particularly in individuals with a strong sense of their own independence.

(The emphasis in bold is mine.)

Some questions this raises for me:

1) What leads some people to develop a sense of strong independence vs. really hoping to be included? Can people who really long for inclusion become more genuinely independent? (not in a false way, where they pretend not to care, while seething with anger and forming little groups of their own from which they can reject people). Can people who start off independent get worn down and long for inclusion – if so, how does this happen?

2) How is social inclusion being defined here? Is it inclusion in terms of mainstream values? There are people who might not be bothered by rejection by the mainstream, but care very much about the opinions of a non-mainstream group. Does true independence hold in the face of all kinds of rejection, both mainstream and non-mainstream?

3) More from the article:

“Rejection confirms for independent people what they already feel about themselves, that they’re not like others. For such people, that distinction is a positive one leading them to greater creativity.”

What other qualities accompany this feeling of being proudly different from others? Positive qualities like resilience, focus and discipline. Possibly negative qualities like arrogance and contempt (are these conducive to creativity?).