*Andrew Davis, CEI Intern and Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director*

**Math Performance in the US Falls Behind Many Other Countries**

While math skills are essential, many people in the U.S. don’t have adequate math skills and abilities. An estimated one-fifth of adults in the U.S. have numeracy skills below what is needed for everyday situations (Department for Education and Skills, 2003), and less than 50% of our children perform above the proficient level in math (U.S. Department of Education, 2016).

**Math: Complex, Multi-dimensional Operations**

What else can be done to boost math scores? Perhaps something can be gained by turning to neuroscience and considering how to improve a student’s attention, focus, and memory skills. Executive Functioning (EF) refers to a family of cognitive processes that help individuals plan, organize, focus, problem solve, and complete tasks. ‘Executive functions (EFs) make possible mentally playing with ideas; taking the time to think before acting; meeting novel, unanticipated challenges; resisting temptations; and staying focused,’ (Diamond, 2013, p.155). These EF skills involve s*witching, working memory, and inhibition.* They support our ability to shift our focus from one task or stimulus to another (shifting); apply what we remember about the most relevant information (working memory); and stop distracting or automatic thoughts in order to continue to focus on a specific task (inhibition) (see Davis, 2017). These three components of EF support our math capabilities. With math, students must constantly process input, holding information in one’s working memory, and then applying previously learned information in a specific sequence.

EF skills are critical throughout mathematical equations, from the start to the end. Math can be thought of as a second language, where the ‘words are mostly used to translate visuospatial and quantitative concepts into a set of symbols that can be more easily manipulated’ (McCloskey, 2013). Math may involve linguistic (using words), numerative (using symbols and numbers), and visuospatial (pictures, diagrams, etc.) dimensions as the students work through problems. As student’s problem solve they consider the relationships between numbers or calculation syntax in specific situations. These are all skills that challenge one’s EF. (See Figure 1).

**Figure 1.**** An Integrative Model Specifying Processes, Abilities, Lexicons, Skills, Memory, and EF for Mental Math Problem-Solving Taken from: McCloskey, G. (2013). ****Executive Functions and Mathematics: A Neuropsychological Perspective **

Figure 1 primarily demonstrates how working memory is used in math:

**How Teachers can Enhance Executive Functioning to Improve Math Skills**

Blair, C., Ursache, A., Greenberg, M., & Vernon-Feagans, L. (2015). Multiple aspects of self-regulation uniquely predict mathematics but not letter’“word knowledge in the early elementary grades. *Developmental Psychology,**51*(4), 459-472. doi:10.1037/a0038813

Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (2006). *Tools of the mind: The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education *(2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River: Pearson.

Bos, I. F., Ven, S. H., Kroesbergen, E. H., & Luit, J. E. (2013). Working memory and mathematics in primary school children: A meta-analysis. *Educational Research Review,10*, 29-44. doi:10.1016/j.edurev.2013.05.003

David , C. V. (2012). Working memory deficits in Math learning difficulties: a meta-analysis. *International Journal of Developmental Disabilities*, 58:2, 67-84. doi: 10.1179/2047387711Y.0000000007

Department for Education and Skills (2003). *The Skills for Life survey: A national needs and impact survey of literacy, numeracy and ICT skills**.* London: HMSO.

Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. *Annual Review of Psychology,64*(1), 135-168. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750

McCloskey, G. (2013). *Executive Functions and Mathematics: A Neuropsychological Perspective *

OECD (2016), *PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education*, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264266490-en.

Schleicher, A., & Davidson, M. (2012). *Programme for International Student Assessment 2012 (PISA) Results from Pisa 2012: United States*(pp. 1-10, Country Specific Overview). Paris, France: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2016). *The Condition of Education 2016 (NCES 2016’“144).* Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.