Children’s Learning Institute to study low-performing preschoolers at risk for math difficulties

Marcia A. Barnes, Ph.D.

Marcia A. Barnes, Ph.D.

The four-year research project, funded through a $4 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, will test the effectiveness of a preschool program, Pre-K Mathematics Tutorial, and the combination of this program with attention training, for improving the mathematical knowledge of preschool children who are especially low performing in mathematics and at highest risk for mathematical difficulties in school.

Marcia A. Barnes, Ph.D., who is a professor of pediatrics and Chair in Childhood Reading and Learning at the Children’s Learning Institute, is the principal investigator. Co-principal investigators are Susan Landry, Ph.D., Paul Swank, Ph.D., and Michael Assel, Ph.D., from the Children’s Learning Institute, and Alice Klein, Ph.D., and Prentice Starkey, Ph.D., from WestEd in California.

“We’ve found that children who have low mathematical knowledge coupled with poor attention skills at the beginning of prekindergarten are at the highest risk for significant learning difficulties in math in both kindergarten and first grade,” says Barnes. “Cognitive neuroscience studies suggest a strong link between attention and mathematical learning and performance, so it makes sense for us to see whether combining both interventions with young children provides some synergy for mathematical learning over and above that provided by an evidence-based mathematical intervention alone.”

The project, which begins in September, will screen ethnically and linguistically diverse children from 88 state-funded pre-K classrooms in Texas and California, resulting in 528 mathematically low-performing children who will be assessed in both their pre-K and kindergarten years. It will use a randomized controlled design with children within a classroom randomly assigned to one of three groups: a math only group, in which children receive the Pre-K Mathematics Tutorial over the course of a year with computerized training that does not affect attention; a math and attention group, in which children receive both the Pre-K Mathematics Tutorial and adaptive computerized attention training during the same time period; and a control group that maintains the usual classroom environment with no tutorial interventions for math or attention.

The Pre-K Mathematics Tutorial program teaches foundational and more advanced mathematical concepts and skills, providing opportunities for cumulative review, assessing children’s learning, and offering instructional and emotional support during learning.  The attention training involves weekly computer-based activities designed to reinforce and challenge a child’s ability to sustain attention, switch attention and resist distraction.

“What we are really after here is early prevention. Special education interventions such as the small group intensive tutorial program we will use in this project are common for older children with learning difficulties but are rare for pre-K children,” says Barnes. “We are complementing and extending the research on improving school readiness for at-risk children, which is one of the major research mandates of the Children’s Learning Institute.”

The effectiveness of all three groups will be evaluated by comparing gains in children’s mathematical knowledge and attention abilities as well as in other academically relevant skills, such as early literacy, that are not directly targeted by the interventions.

“The testing of these combined interventions represents a unique approach to struggling learners,” says Barnes. “If we find out that a tutorial intervention in mathematics or the same intervention coupled with attention training helps to prevent significant learning difficulties in very young children, then I think this would be of great significance to educators. It could also be of value to policymakers who need empirical data to make informed decisions about how to provide high-quality support for their most at-risk preschoolers.”

About the Children’s Learning Institute (CLI)

The Children’s Learning Institute (CLI) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) is a nationally recognized institute that combines scholarship from the fields of education, psychology, neurodevelopment and medicine to create proven learning solutions based on empirical research. Through classroom interventions, clinical assessment, diagnosis and treatment of learning disorders, and cutting-edge research on techniques to enhance a child’s learning environment, CLI’s results-focused programs equip every child to learn and to excel.  For more information, visit and follow the Children’s Learning Institute on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Andrew Heger
Media Hotline: 713-500-3030