Executive Function Skills in Preschool Number, Counting, and Cardinality Activities

Three-and-a-half–year-old Javier and 4-year-old Jamie are pretending they are at an arcade and need tokens to play the games. Javier draws a 3 counting card and places three pretend tokens into the pocket. Then their teacher removes one token from the pocket and exclaims, “Uh oh, a token fell out! How many do we have now?” Javier and Jamie can solve this problem in more than one way. They could empty the pocket and count the set of tokens, or they could remember that they started with three tokens and use subtraction to find out how many tokens are left after one was removed. With either approach, Javier and Jamie rely on their counting and executive function skills to do this activity. [The activity described here is from the DREME Guided Activity: Token to Ride]

Many number, counting, and cardinality activities provide children opportunities to practice their executive function (EF) skills. EF skills are cognitive skills used to intentionally evaluate and control our own thoughts and actions.

What Number, Counting, and Cardinality Skills Do Children Learn in Preschool?

With support from their teachers and repeated practice, preschoolers can learn:

  • The correct number sequence.
  • That number words are used for counting.
  • That every item in a set is counted only once.
  • That the last number word used when counting tells how many items are in the set (i.e., the cardinal number principle).
  • That adding leads to more items and subtracting leads to fewer items.
  • That adding one more always leads to the next number in the counting sequence.
  • How numbers are related to each other (for example, six is one more than five).

Returning to the number activity in the vignette, Javier and Jamie’s knowledge about numbers helps them figure out how many tokens they have all together after adding and removing tokens from the pocket.

How Are Executive Function Skills Used in Number, Counting, and Cardinality Activities?

While counting, Javier and Jamie’s EF skills helped them:

  • Keep track of how many tokens are in the pocket by mentally “updating” this information (working memory).
  • Consider different ways to solve the problem: Javier can solve by counting down from the starting number or counting from one (cognitive flexibility).

In this and other math activities, EF skills can support children’s:

  • Ability to remember numerical goals (working memory), such as in the DREME Math Moment: Counting Clean-Up, in which children locate and count a certain number of items while putting materials away (such as cleaning up at least three toys).
  • Understanding that adding items leads to more items, such as in the DREME Center Time Activity: Tower Power, in which children add a certain number of blocks to a tower they gradually build.

Why Focus on Math and Executive Function Skills?

First, many researchers have found that EF and math skills are related to each other, and that children’s EF skills are related to how well they complete math activities or learn math concepts or strategies [1]. Second, we focus on EF and math because both sets of skills are malleable—meaning that they can improve with practice [2, 3]. The DREME Guided Activities include built-in supports to help teachers prioritize teaching opportunities for children to practice their EF during spatial and geometry activities.

See the additional DREME articles on executive function and math to learn more about how specific EF skills play a role in math activities.



[1] Mazzocco, M. M. M., & Kover, S. T. (2007). A longitudinal assessment of executive function skills and their association with math performance. Child Neuropsychology, 13(1), 18-45. https://doi.org/10.1080/09297040600611346

[2] Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., & Germeroth, C. (2016). Learning executive function and early mathematics: Directions of causal relations. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 36(3), 79-90. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2015.12.009

[3] Banse, H. W., Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., Day-Hess, C. A., & Joswick, C. (2021). Supporting executive function development and early mathematics through a geometry activity. Young Children, 76(3), 75-82.