Start Early. Start well.

February 13, 2018

Professional Development Institute Focuses on Nurturing Children's Math Skills

Omaha, Neb. — Mathematical thinking starts early, and intentional support from caregivers and teachers is essential.

That was the message of the third institute in the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan “Professional Development for All” 2017-18 series Jan. 25 and 27 in Omaha. More than 200 teachers, community-based early childhood educators, and others who serve young children in the metro area took part in the event, entitled “Children as Mathematicians: Early Math That Matters the Most.”

The institute was led by a team from the Early Math Collaborative at Erikson Institute, the nation’s premier graduate school of child development. Lisa Ginet, Ed.D., the Collaborative’s director, said in her keynote address that math is a logical way of thinking that allows for increasing precision.

“We use math to make sense of the world and we use math to solve problems,” she said. This process begins in infancy.

“Even when babies are learning language, many studies have shown that they’re somehow using statistics,” Ginet said. “They’re gathering data on the language being used around them. After several weeks of babbling you’ll notice a change—it starts to resemble the language heard around them.”


”What you do with children when they’re babies and toddlers and 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds and grade schoolers is critical to them being able to think logically about the world,” she said.

Ginet said the Early Math Collaborative, which celebrated 10 years in 2017, started out working with preschool and Kindergarten teachers and has expanded its work up through fifth grade and down to birth through age 3.

“Our mission statement: we are transforming the understanding, teaching, and learning of foundational mathematics from the ground up,” Ginet said.

“One of things we like to say at Erikson is ‘it depends,’” she said. “There are some things that you can have a step-by-step recipe, but most of what you do has to be grounded in the knowledge of child development, and it depends on the child, on the situation. We’re not going to give you a recipe telling you exactly what to do. We’re going to give you some information you can use in figuring out what to do.

“There’s no perfect math curriculum, no perfect set of materials. We have to focus on the whole child,” she said. “We also believe we need to focus on the whole teacher. What is their knowledge and how can we build around that?

“There are a lot of teachers who in their earlier lives did not have a very pleasant relationship with math, who reject math as ‘that thing I wasn’t good at.’ We want to change your attitudes about math,” she said. “If you’re not excited about it, they (children) won’t be excited about it. And they know the difference between real excitement and fake excitement.”

Early Math: Why Does It Matter?

Ginet said the Early Math Collaborative has developed four core values:

  1. Math learning is for everyone.
  2. Math learning is crucial in early childhood.
  3. Math learning follows developmental progressions.
  4. Math learning depends on effective teaching.

“These values underlie all the work we do and inform all our decisions,” she said.

You might hear someone say ‘I’m just not a math person.’ But you don’t hear someone say ‘I’m not a reading person or I’m not a language person. But it’s totally acceptable to say I’m not a math teacher,” Ginet said. “Mathematical thinking is something all humans do. Everybody can succeed in the kind of math that’s needed for school and the kind of math that’s needed for citizenship.”

Math learning is essential for young children, she said.

“Early math skills predict later math achievement, but they also predict later reading achievement,” Ginet said. “It’s all about thinking.”

Math learners must actively construct their math knowledge, and different learners may take different pathways to reach the same understanding or skill, she said. But it takes time for everyone—no 2-year-old can really understand how to count meaningfully to 10, Ginet said.

Children may be hard-wired to learn math, she said, but to really build on their knowledge and make it more effective, they need help, she said. Pre-service teachers who “love children but hate math” are often advised to teach younger students.

“There’s that ‘math person’ thing again,” Ginet said, “which suggests that teaching does not matter,  that it doesn’t matter who’s interacting—some of them are going to be math geniuses and others won’t.”

Research has shown that the amount of teacher math talk in preschool predicts math achievement, so early math learning really does depend on effective teaching, Ginet said.

Additional Featured Presenters

Also speaking Jan. 25 and 27 from Erikson’s Early Math Collaborative were Dr. Mary Hynes-Berry, senior content developer; Donna Johnson, assistant director of school support services; and Lisa Ferguson and Jill Sapoznick, math coaches and professional development facilitators.

Developed by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and funded by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, the free professional development series is designed to introduce leading-edge research and innovative practices to those who work with young children and families, and give early childhood professionals the chance to come together and learn from each other.

Upcoming institutes in the 2017-18 series include “Children as Researchers: Reading to Learn Can Start Early” (March 1 or 3); and “Children as Expressive Artists: Integrating the Arts as a Tool for Learning” (date TBA).


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