One Sunday afternoon, you take your child to a park. As your child plays on the jungle gym with friends, you strike up a conversation with another child’s mom. To your surprise, you learn that her preschool-aged child is already learning multiplication at home, even delving into double-digit multiplication. This makes you wonder if you should start teaching your child multiplication as well. Could it better prepare your child for the elementary school curriculum?
Teaching elementary school math to preschool children is a topic that often sparks debate among parents and educators. While some believe in the benefits of introducing mathematical concepts early in life, others argue that pushing young children to learn math can hinder their overall development or affect their love for learning. So, what’s the answer? We’ll explore this question from several angles.
Why do some parents push their children to learn ahead?
Some parents push their preschool child to learn elementary school math like multiplication for numerous reasons, both educational and personal. One motivation is to provide a strong foundation and a head start for their child’s academic career. Parents want to capitalize on their child’s early learning potential. By exposing children to elementary math concepts such as multiplication, parents aim to help them build a strong numeric understanding and mathematical thinking essential for future success.
Many parents are genuinely concerned for their children’s performance in a competitive educational environment. Today, we see an increasing emphasis on standardized testing and advanced curriculum. Admission to “good” universities and competitive university programs are becoming tougher and tougher, and many parents believe (and rightly so in many circumstances) that getting into a good university is a ticket to good jobs and good income. Motivated parents want their children to get ahead of their peer even from an early age. Math seems to be a good place to start.
Another type of motivation is personal in nature. Some parents perceive their child’s academic success as a reflection of their own parenting. The perception a common phenomenon in today’s competitive world. There is often an unspoken pressure to be the perfect parent, with a spotless home and successful children to prove it. For some parents, their child’s academic achievements are the ultimate validation of their parenting skills and, in a way, they live vicariously through their child’s success.
This “vicarious” effect is particularly strong amongst highly educated parents. This demographic, having experienced academic success themselves, may place a greater emphasis on the importance and value of education. Given their awareness of the stakes and their own background, these parents may feel a strong sense of responsibility to ensure that their children follow in their footsteps. To them, it might seem that their child’s report card is the most definitive evidence of how well they are parenting and preparing their child for success in the world.
When a child achieves academic success, their parents might interpret it as a sign that they have done everything right; they guided, supported, and nurtured their child to excel academically. As a result, they often unconsciously take on this achievement as their own success. A mom whose child gets straight As might discuss her child’s accomplishments with other parents as if it were a direct reflection of her own skill and hard work. Parents who have this kind of perception may feel pressure to prepare their children academically even from an early age.
What’s wrong with teaching my kid multiplication?
There is nothing inherently wrong with teaching single-digit or double-digit multiplication to a preschool child. If your child is precocious and has already mastered counting, number patterns, addition, subtraction, place values, and solving word problems with addition and subtraction, then teaching multiplication is a no-brainer. In that case, I would even recommend that you or your child’s tutor begin introducing multiplication concepts. However, most of the time, a child is not be precocious (despite what a parent might believe), and teaching skills more advanced than what they can cognitively handle is, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, potentially harmful.
Is your child ready to learn advanced concepts like multiplication?
Teaching an advanced concept necessitates a child’s readiness and understanding of prerequisite concepts. For instance, in order to grasp single-digit multiplication, a child must first master addition and recognize number patterns. They should be capable of viewing multiplication as a natural extension of addition. Lacking this foundation, a child may struggle to comprehend the concept of multiplication. And, of course, double-digit multiplication depends on mastery of single-digit multiplication and so on.
Therefore, a parent must adopt the mindset of an educator. A parent would need to assess the child’s readiness before implementing a teaching plan.
Reciting 9 x 9 chart or doing double-digit multiplication on paper is not mastery of multiplication
A preschool child who can recite the 9 x 9 chart may appear to have mastered single-digit multiplication, while one who can do double-digit multiplication on paper might seem like a child genius. A parent might brag about his or her child being so smart and so well prepared for elementary school. A preschooler reciting the 9 x 9 chart makes a great show-and-tell at a home party, but that’s about where its usefulness ends.
The ability to recite something or perform calculations on paper does not equate to mastery. It simply means that the child has memorized a bunch of facts, most likely without understanding their meaning. Mastery of a concept involves a child demonstrating a thorough comprehension of the subject matter, recognizing and communicating the relationships between various related concepts, and applying these concepts, such as multiplication, to solve problems in their daily life. A child who is not genuinely precocious does not reach this level of comprehension most of the time.
By focusing on math, other developmental areas might be neglected
Focusing heavily on math more advanced than your preschooler’s age level might lead to neglect of other essential developmental areas. These other areas may be more important for preschoolers.
1. Social-emotional development: At a young age, children need to learn how to empathize with others, manage their emotions, and develop healthy relationships. A child needs to have enough opportunities to engage in play and other activities that promote social interaction and emotional intelligence.
2. Language and communication: Communication skills, including listening, speaking, reading, and writing, are crucial for a child’s overall development. A child should have ample opportunities to be exposed to varied vocabulary, to develop their conversational abilities, and to engage in reading and writing experiences.
3. Cognitive development: Preschoolers should be encouraged to explore different concepts in various areas of learning, not just mathematics. They need to gain knowledge about their environment, develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and learn to use their imagination.
4. Physical development: Children need opportunities to develop fine and gross motor skills through activities such as running, jumping, climbing, and creating art projects. They need to have sufficient time for physical activity, leading to the development of important motor skills.
Doing stuff that a child doesn’t understand might lead to loss of interest
During preschool years, most children find mathematics to be an enjoyable subject, unlike in elementary school, where they often start developing anxiety towards it. Many kids delight in creating shapes with objects, counting numbers alongside their teachers, and writing vibrant numbers on paper. However, if these children learn advanced mathematical concepts such as multiplication before they are ready, they will be engaging in repetitive work without comprehending its purpose.
As a consequence, they may develop a wrong idea of what math entails, believing it consists of only repetition and memorization. Moreover, since reciting and paperwork do not involve experiential learning through play with tangible objects – which is developmentally appropriate for preschoolers – they may lose interest in math or perceive it as dull or painful. In turn, this could lead to the development of math anxiety, a state of unease and fear toward math that results in the avoidance of this subject.
Your child might feel stress and pressure, leading to less self-confidence
When a preschooler is pushed to study math topics that are significantly more advanced than their age level, such as multiplication, he or she might feel excessive pressure and stress. While some children might naturally be inclined towards grasping complex math concepts at a young age, most children struggle with understanding multiplication or other advanced topics. Constantly attempting to master these topics could lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy, as the child realizes that they are unable to keep up with the learning expectations placed upon them. Their perspective on math may shift from “Yes, I can do this” to “No, I can’t do this.” Their self-confidence suffers.
Moreover, pressure coming from their parents can cause burnout in preschoolers. Burnout is a feeling of exhaustion and lack of motivation that can be induced by prolonged exposure to a demanding situation or environment. If a preschooler is consistently exposed to math topics that they are unable to comprehend and is pressured to perform well in these areas, their intrinsic motivation to learn and explore may be negatively impacted. This can lead to a reduced engagement in learning activities, hindering their overall academic development in the long run.
Your child might develop a wrong idea that he or she is smarter than other kids
Introducing advanced mathematical concepts such as multiplication to a young child in preschool can sometimes result in the child getting a false idea that they are smarter, more talented, or more capable than their peers. This kind of “self-confidence” (very loosely used) actually hinders development of a growth mindset, which is crucial for long-term success, resilience, and adaptability.
A growth mindset encourages individuals to believe that their abilities, intelligence, and talents can be developed and improved over time through effort, practice, and perseverance. In contrast, a fixed mindset promotes the idea that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, thus making them less willing to adapt or learn from their mistakes.
When a preschooler succeeds at tasks such as multiplication without truly understanding the underlying concepts, they might think that their success is because of their innate intelligence. In other words, they might start to believe they are special and smarter than other kids. This could lead to an overinflated sense of self-importance, and they might assume that their achievements stem from their inherent superiority over their peers. As a result, they might develop a fixed mindset and disregard the significance of constant learning and growth.
In the long term, this mindset could negatively impact the child’s academic and personal development. Believing that their capabilities and intelligence are fixed entities could lead them to avoid challenging tasks or situations. They want to “protect” the idea that they are smart. They fear that failure could expose their perceived superiority as a façade. Moreover, children with a fixed mindset are more likely to ignore constructive feedback, as they are more reluctant to accept that their abilities can be improved.
Guidelines for Parents
In most cases, I don’t recommend teaching children topics that are more advanced than what they can handle in terms of their cognitive levels or development levels. But, there are times where the child is genuinely precocious, and teaching more advanced topics is warranted. How do you know if your child should study multiplications? Consider these as a guideline:
- Your child is ready: Your child has mastered topics like counting, addition and subtraction, number patterns, writing numbers, and solving simple word problems (i.e. Grade 1 math curriculum materials). Your child can do these tasks with ease.
- Your child shows signs of being precocious: Your child exhibits intuitive understanding of mathematical concepts, have keen observation and memory, display exceptional computational ability for his or her age, and enjoys problem-solving.
- Your child’s teacher agrees with your assessment: Your child’s preschool or kindergarten teacher is a certified educational professional knowledgeable in pedagogy and early childhood education. If your child’s teacher agrees that he or she is ready for more advanced materials, this can be a sign that you can start teaching more difficult concepts to your child.
- Keep your expectation in check: It’s okay if your child is not precocious. I’ve met and taught students in special education who eventually got into top universities in Canada. What’s more important than being able to recite 9 x 9 chart is your child’s love of math, self-confidence, and growth mindset.
In conclusion, while introducing advanced mathematical concepts like multiplication to preschoolers may seem appealing, it is essential to first assess a child’s readiness, cognitive levels, and developmental stages to avoid potential negative consequences. Guiding children in developing their skills at the right pace while fostering a growth mindset significantly contributes to their long-term academic and personal success. Parents should collaborate with professional educators to assess their child’s abilities and provide a balanced, age-appropriate learning experience that promotes positive, holistic development.
Richard Zhang, M.Ed., is an educator and a software developer with a Masters degree in education from University of Toronto and an immense passion for education and learning. Until the pandemic, Richard owned an award-winning learning centre in Toronto. For 15 years, he has taught and mentored hundreds of elementary, middle school, and high school students succeed in academics. He is also an app developer specializing in web and mobile application in educational and business sectors.