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Is Your Baby Good at Math?

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There's nothing like an infant who smiles and rolls over when the milestones charts say he should. What better (what other?) indicators are there that Junior is on his road to success? Well, if it's success in math you're looking for, forget the acrobatics and face contortions.

Duke University researchers have found that babies who recognize the difference between a small group of items and a larger group of them are totally set—when it comes to preschool math concepts.

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Woo-hoo? And really, how do they even know? How do researchers detect math abilities in pre-talkers?

Elizabeth Brannon, Duke University professor of psychology and neuroscience, came up with study using a well-known method of infant testing—tracking and timing where babies focus their attention. Her team showed 48 six-month-olds images on a screen of a group of animated dots that changed in size and also in number. Researchers tested those same children again once they were 3.5 years old, when they were shown an array of dots and asked to pick which had more. (These older kids were also given a standardized math test designed for preschools and also an IQ test. Finally, they were asked to identify the largest number they could understand.)

What they found was that those who, as babies, showed a recognition of the differing amounts of dots scored higher on the battery of preschool math tests. What researchers then concluded was that those who had a better innate quantitative abilities demonstrated a stronger shift to symbolic math—amounts of things being assigned a number.

There's quite a bit of distance between incapable at math and being a super-genius.

Brannon, whose research appeared in the October 21 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, isn't promising that such early math prowess means flawless SATs. But it could change the approach to early math education in preschool—especially for those kids who didn't show a strong number sense during the early high-chair months.

Of course, talk about innate abilities can get pretty scary if you think that's all there is. Which, incidentally, this study does not conclude. There are ways to excel in math, even if you suspect your child would have totally not reacted to various piles of dots on the board. You just have to work at it.

Writing in Quartz magazine, economics and finance professors Miles Kimball and Noah Smith say this idea that the only way to be good at math is to be born with ability is a very American way of looking at the subject. There's quite a bit of distance between incapable at math and being a super-genius. All it really takes to find yourself a spot and move up on that scale is to come in prepared, work at it and have a little swagger.

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So don't sweat the high-chair years! What your child may have lacked in an interest in a big pile of dots can be made up for with some challenging math problems and a push from her mom or dad.

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