Research from the University of Sheffield, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, investigated why children differ so much in their early maths skills, to try and identify how they can be best supported.
The study concluded that using brain training exercises to improve core thinking skills does not in turn boost maths ability.
Instead, the researchers found that core thinking skills, including memory and attention, are key skills that support early maths learning.
The research is some of the first to identify what is causing an attainment gap in early maths skills by studying a sample of four-year-olds from socially diverse backgrounds on their core thinking skills and early maths skills.
The findings showed that on average, the children from disadvantaged backgrounds had lower maths skills than their more advantaged peers.
The study showed one way to support children who may be struggling with early maths is to support these core thinking skills. The researchers tried an intervention technique to improve the children’s cognitive skills directly to see if this had a knock-on effect on their maths ability.
The intervention involved simple brain training challenges which the children completed once a week. Although the children improved their performance on the brain training tasks, there was no improvement in their maths skills.
Psychologists at the University of Sheffield have identified that core thinking skills are crucial in developing early number skills, and why children might differ widely in their early maths ability.
It is hoped the findings will inform new research to test different types of interventions in order to narrow the differences in early numeracy skills and help disadvantaged children who might be at risk of falling behind in maths.
Interventions could include promoting teaching strategies which are less demanding on children’s attention.
Dr Emma Blakey, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Psychology, said: “Our study has found that core thinking skills are crucial in the development of early numbers skills. For children who struggle with these skills, their memory and attention may get easily overloaded by the learning process.
“We found that trying to improve these thinking skills using brain training is not effective. The next stage of our research will be to see if a helpful approach for children who might be struggling may be to ease the load on their attention and memory while they are learning.”
Cognitive functions, particularly executive functions (EFs), are acknowledged as a predictor for academic achievement .
The term “EFs” refers to a set of top-down mental processes that allows for controlled and goal-directed behaviour .
EFs can be subdivided into three core dimensions: The first dimension is updating, the ability to keep relevant information in working memory.
The second dimension, inhibition, refers to the avoidance of dominant, automatic or prepotent responses.
The third dimension, shifting, is based on updating and inhibition, and represents the ability to change among multiple tasks, operations, rules or perspectives.
From a developmental perspective, inhibition is the first EF to be fully developed in children, whereas shifting is the last .
Several physiological mechanisms have been proposed to explain these positive effects, including exercise-induced neurogenesis, angiogenesis, enhanced nervous system metabolism and increased catecholamine neurotransmission [11, 12].
EFs in turn seem to play a mediating role in the relationship between PA and academic achievement [10, 13, 14], indicating that increased PA promotes motor abilities and better EF performance, which consequently impacts academic achievement.
Thus, specifically designing physical activities to infuse them into the school setting might be a cost-efficient way to enhance both children’s EFs and at the very end their academic achievement.
Recently, intervention studies are revealing that not all forms of PA benefit cognition equally. Besides quantitative aspects (such as exercise duration and intensity), qualitative aspects (such as exercise type) have also been shown to affect children’s EFs .
To date, the cognitive engagement (CE) inherent to many forms of PA is one of the qualitative aspects most widely discussed .
Increased cognitive demand is thought to induce CE, which is defined as the degree to which cognitive effort is needed to master difficult skills .
The “cognitive stimulation hypothesis”  provides a possible explanation for the cognitive improvement achieved through the cognitive demands inherent to PA exercises.
Considering the existing literature, the current results seem to support this theoretical assumption. Vazou, Pesce, Lakes and Smiley-Oyen  found a medium effect of cognitively engaging PA on cognitive outcomes in their meta-analyses.
It is evident that the interest in cognitive engagement during PA is gaining attention, however, research into PA modalities and their impact on cognitive outcomes is still in its infancy. Furthermore, several limitations make it difficult to draw comparisons between existing studies .
The high heterogeneity within the same categories of PA programs aggravated a clear understanding of effectiveness. Firstly, it is possible that programs defined as one specific modality of PA include substantially different contents and PA characteristics.
Secondly, within a specific PA program several PA characteristics can be responsible for the cognitive stimulation induced. Thirdly, the reliability by which a PA program is implemented in practice can influence its efficacy and effectiveness. Consequently, there is a need to systematically vary the amount of CE inherent in PA exercises.
For example, one study which varied the amount of CE systematically found positive effects, only through the implementation of cognitively enriched PA.
Cognitively enriched PA games, such as basketball and floorball, elicited cognitive improvements in 10 to 12-year-old children, whereas both the mostly aerobic intervention (running exercises) and a traditional physical education curriculum, including only few cognitive demands, showed no beneficial effects on children’s cognitive outcomes .
Thus, it seems plausible that cognitively engaging long-term PA interventions provide an opportunity to modulate children’s cognitive functions effectively.
Classroom-based PA seems to be a promising tool to enhance not only daily PA, but also EFs and academic achievement . Recently, studies have applied chronic classroom-based interventions and found encouraging results.
In general, two different types of (long-term) classroom-based PA can be distinguished: a) integrated PA, which incorporates PA during academic lessons (e.g. hopping the result of an arithmetic problem) and b) PA breaks, which consist of short bouts of PA between lessons (e.g. performing coordinative exercises) .
In a large study, including 1322 participants, improved classroom behavior was observed after 8 months of daily implemented PA breaks . In another large long-term intervention, no improvements in academic achievement through daily PA breaks over 3 years were found, but academic achievement outcomes did not diminish compared to the control group .
This suggests that additional PA time in classroom, at least, has no negative influence on academic achievement.
A closer examination of studies finding positive effects on children’s cognitive outcomes through classroom-based PA uncovers differences concerning the specific PA modality implemented.
Most classroom-based interventions featured basic aerobic movements (jogging, hopping, skipping) [27, 33, 34], whereas in others specific coordinative movements, like rope skipping or dancing had to be performed .
However, if experimental conditions were mostly compared to an passive control condition, e.g. sedentary academic or regular lessons, it is not surprising that children’s cognitive functions benefit from all varieties of PA interventions when they were compared to either no treatment or purely academic content.
With the aim of systematically varying the amount of CE inherent in PA exercises, more than two groups including an active control group seem to have several advantages: improvements in academic related outcomes can be traced back as a result of the PA breaks intervention and shed light on a specific underlying mechanism.
Further, active control groups deal better with confounds such as motivation, treatment credibility and internal validity .
Most previous studies either targeted children’s EFs  or academic achievement [30, 33, 35, 37, 38] as a separate outcome. Bearing in mind the aforementioned connection between PA and academic achievement with EFs playing a mediating role, only few studies [10, 39] included the core EFs and academic achievement as linked outcomes in the same design. Egger, Conzelmann and Schmidt  disentangled the separate and- /or combined short-term effect of physical exertion and CE induced by a single bout of classroom-based PA on children’s EFs.
Consequently, there is another need to systematically differing between the long-term effects of cognitively engaging PA breaks, comparing them to active controls with less CE or less physical exertion.
The aim of the present study was to investigate the effects of three qualitatively different long-term PA break interventions, each with diverging quantities of cognitive engagement and physical exertion on both primary school children’s three core EFs and their academic achievement.
It was hypothesized that PA breaks that combine physical effort with high cognitive demands are more effective than PA breaks with either low cognitive demands or low physical effort.
Therefore, the effectiveness of three PA break interventions were compared:
(1) The combo group with high amounts of both cognitive engagement and physical exertion,
(2) the aerobic group with low cognitive engagement and high physical exertion, and
(3) the cognition group with high cognitive engagement and low physical exertion.
University of Sheffield