What we do

Developing early maths skills

Emma Blakey, Dan Carroll, and Danielle Matthews have been working with several nursery schools all over Sheffield to look at what thinking skills support the development of early maths skills. We know that core thinking skills like memory and attention develop rapidly between three and five years of age. We wanted to look at how these core thinking skills support children’s school readiness, in terms of their maths skills. In this study, we were particularly interested in two core thinking skills: children’s working memory – this is the ability to maintain and work with information held in our minds (for example remembering an instruction, while doing an activity) – and children’s inhibitory control – this is the ability to suppress irrelevant responses (for example, when children can raise their hand instead of shouting out). Young children often find these activities difficult, but they are rapidly developing between the ages of three and five.

We have tracked the development of these skills from preschool to reception. Our findings could contribute to an evidence base for supporting children in preschool, particularly those who need extra help with academic skills. So far, we are finding that both children’s memory skills and inhibitory control skills in nursery school were important predictors of maths skills in reception school – in both numerical skills and maths reasoning. In general, higher performance in both these key thinking skills at preschool corresponds with higher performance on the early maths skills at reception.

We are continuing to follow these children up through reception, and will update this page when the results are fully available. Thank you to all of the nurseries that have participated and to the Nuffield Foundation for funding this research.

More mistakes as you develop might be a good thing!

Young children often find it hard to behave flexibly, often failing to adjust their behaviour in different circumstances. Psychologists call this skill ‘cognitive flexibility.’ We studied the development of cognitive flexibility between the ages of two and four. In the study, children played a new computer game which involved sorting colourful shapes by one rule (such as colour) and then after a few go’s switching and sorting the same coloured shapes by a new rule (such as shape). This was one of the first studies to look at flexible behaviour in two-year-olds.

We found that 4-year-olds could successfully switch and sort by the new rule, demonstrating flexible behaviour. Three-year-olds tended to fail to sort by the new rule. When the rule changed, they just kept doing what they did before (therefore, getting it all wrong). For example, if the new rule was shape, children kept sorting by the old rule (colour). Interestingly, two-year-olds neither behaved flexibly nor got it all wrong: they were very variable and unsystematic, sometimes getting it right and sometimes getting it wrong. Therefore, they actually scored more highly than the 3-year-olds!

Why might this be? The development of memory skills during this time might be important in explaining this developmental pattern. As children develop between two and three, initial improvements in memory might mean that behaviour can be driven by past behaviour (which can lead to mistakes). As two-year-olds do not yet have a fully developed memory system, their current behaviour is less likely to be driven by old behaviour. As children get older, memory develops to become more flexible, meaning that while old behaviour can be remembered, it can also be ignored in favour of more flexible behaviour.

Scientific report: Blakey, Visser & Carroll (2015):

Dental Health

With our colleagues in the University of Sheffield dental school (http://www.shef.ac.uk/dentalschool/research/groups/dph/cyoh), we are interested in the contribution that dental health and healthy eating make to development and quality of life in infancy and childhood. We run studies to investigate how teeth brushing behaviours and routines are introduced, change and develop as children grow. We also study how knowledge of healthy eating impacts on these behaviours as well as infant health more generally.

Language and Communication

Around their first birthdays, infants begin to communicate with people about the world around them. From this point on, they rapidly pick up the language(s) they hear around them. Yet it takes several years for children to become adult like communicators. We run studies to investigate how children learn to talk, why they sometimes find it difficult and what experiences can help them to learn. We also study how good language skills can improve children´s understanding of the world and other people.

Example study 1: Learning to say what you want

Find out more about the first stages of language development here

Example study 2: A cross-cultural study of narrative development

Learning to talk isn’t just about learning words and stringing them together. A key component of language development involves taking other people’s point of view into account and adapting what you say accordingly. Young children find this hard and often say things their parents can’t understand (e.g., saying ‘I want that one’ when the parent doesn’t know what ‘that one’ is). We have been studying how children learn to produce appropriate referring expressions (e.g., saying ‘that book by the radio’ instead of ‘that one’). The example study above showed that providing children training (by asking them to clarify what they mean) dramatically increases 2- to 4-year-old children’s ability to communicate clearly. Still, little is known about whether and how parents spontaneously help their children learn about this aspect of language.
In a recent project, we have explored how British and Costa Rican parents and their 3- and 5-year olds talk to each other. Children looked at two picture-based story books with an experimenter and later on were asked to tell each of the stories to their parent (who could not see the books). For one book, parents were instructed to interact normally with their children. For the other book, parents were asked to refrain from asking their children questions. When free to ask questions, parents were found to use a variety of strategies to clarify their children’s stories. The next step for this research is to find out which of their strategies is most effective in promoting language development in the home.