Research Frontiers: Greater Than the Sum

Kennedy Krieger Researcher Studies the Underlying Causes of Math Learning Disability in School-Age Children

Dr. Michele MazzoccoAsk a young child what the toughest subject is in school, and he is likely to say math or reading. While there have been thousands of studies on reading disabilities and, consequently, methods developed for overcoming them there have been far fewer on math dysfunction. Michèle M. M. Mazzocco, Ph.D., director of Kennedy Krieger Institute's Math Skills Development Project, has been leading a unique study to define math learning disability, identify early indicators of poor math achievement and understand how it develops.

In their longitudinal study, "Cognitive and Genetic Correlates of Early Math Skills," Dr. Mazzocco and her team of investigators are examining groups of young children at risk and not at risk for math disability, including those with Turner syndrome, fragile X and others who represent a random selection of children from a large public school district in the greater Baltimore area. The children are being followed and tested across various stages of development to determine if poor math achievement persists throughout a child's life or if onset occurs at a later age.

"There is so little research being done on math disability and fewer longitudinal studies. This study is unique in that we're following groups of children, since kindergarten, for whom any risk for having a math disability is unknown, so that we may see which children will develop math difficulty and what that difficulty looks like. In addition, we're following children at risk for poor math disability by studying two genetic conditions associated with poor math achievement," Dr. Mazzocco says. The children are being tested for evidence of poor fact retrieval, difficulty aligning numeric information, sign confusion, number omission or rotation and poor use of problem solving strategies. They are then grouped based on the kind of math disability they exhibit. This classification is based on performance on specific mathematical tests and on associated cognitive skills, such as the ability to process visual information.

In Phase I of the study, which began in 1997, Dr. Mazzocco assessed groups of 5 and 6 year olds for poor math achievement. The preliminary results found that girls with fragile X and Turner syndromes had a greater chance of developing specific math difficulties, such as poor fact retrieval or use of problem solving strategies, than other children. "The study showed that there is evidence of math learning difficulty in the Turner group and less clear evidence in the fragile X group," Dr. Mazzocco explains. "These findings support the notion that subtypes of math exist and that there is a need to identify them." The study's preliminary findings were published in the November/December 2001 issue of the Journal of Learning Disabilities. The study also was presented at several association meetings, including the 30th Annual Conference of the New York Branch of the International Dyslexia Association in March 2003 and the 2003 Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting in April.

Dr. Mazzocco is currently in her sixth year of testing children with these conditions and hopes to follow them through high school. In April 2002, the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development awarded $1.78 million to the Math Skills Development Project. This funding will allow Dr. Mazzocco to continue her work on math ability and disability in non-selected and at-risk populations, such as children with fragile X and Turner syndromes, for the next five years.

While Dr. Mazzocco and her team are beginning to understand the cognitive and genetic basis of math performance and difficulty, more work needs to be done in this area. "Our research program includes many studies on math and related skills, and these studies complement one another," Dr. Mazzocco says. "The whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts."

Dr. Mazzocco is recruiting additional participants for the groups of children with fragile X and Turner syndromes. Individuals interested in learning more about this research project may contact her at mazzocco@kennedykrieger.org.