U.Va. Researchers Receive $1M to Study Connection between Fine Motor and Math Skills

October 27, 2009 — The Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia has received a $1 million federal stimulus grant distributed by the National Institutes of Health. Principal research scientist David Grissmer and senior scientist Andrew Mashburn will study the connection between fine motor skills and mathematical skills.

"Recent research studies of kindergarteners show that the most powerful predictor of later school success – in both reading and math – is a child's early understanding of math concepts," Mashburn said.

Three other variables also predict later success on math scores, Grissmer said: attentional skills, accurate observations of the worldly environment and fine motor skills.

"While the other variables were expected, fine motor skills was a surprise," Grissmer said. "Historically, motor and cognitive development have been considered as relatively independently developing skills, but recent evidence suggests that they are inextricably intertwined."

According to Grissmer, neuroscience evidence suggests that the neural networks built to facilitate learning motor skills are the same networks used later in learning mathematical concepts. Inefficiency in building these networks during motor development may make later learning more difficult.

The U.S. ranks around the middle of nations tested on mathematics at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, Grissmer said. Most of the gap in performance between the U.S. and other nations is due to the gaps within the U.S. between children who experience social and/or economic disadvantages and more advantaged children. Closing the international gap will require boosting the scores of these groups of children.

"We do not know yet why these development gaps are present. But research suggests that fine motor skills require first building good gross motor skills, as well as opportunities for increasingly challenging environments and activities that build fine motor skills," Grissmer said. These opportunities do not exist equally among children.

While gross motor skills tend to involve movements of large muscle groups for activities such as running, jumping and balancing, fine motor skills involve the coordination of small muscle movements, like those used when children write, draw pictures or build with blocks, Mashburn said.

The grant will create after-school activities designed to improve fine motor skills for kindergarten children in six to 10 schools from Charlottesville, Waynesboro and Albemarle, Augusta, Nelson, Greene and Fluvanna counties, with a total of 300 students participating. The after-school activities, each session lasting 40 to 45 minutes, will include students disproportionately drawn from minority students and students receiving free lunch in an effort to make as significant an impact as possible to improve these students' fine motor skills.

Grissmer and Mashburn are working with Judith Spellman, an occupational therapist from the Albemarle County Public Schools, to design activities that she uses with her students to develop fine motor skills, such as pinch-and-grip strength, in-hand manipulation and eye-hand coordination. Students also will participate in "Callirobics," a program developed by Liora Laufer from Charlottesville that involves handwriting activities set to music designed to improve children's fine motor skills.

The grant will pay each participating school $2,500 to compensate teachers and parents for their time and support, and will allow hiring approximately 20 people part-time for three semesters to manage and implement the intervention.

"Our hope for this study is to show that participating in these after-school activities will help children develop better visio-spatial and fine motor skills, improved hand-eye coordination and more focused attention, which, in turn, improves their math skills," Mashburn said.

"We hope that closing the gap in fine motor skills between disadvantaged children and more advantaged children would also narrow their achievement gaps, which in turn would boost U.S. rankings internationally," Grissmer said

"Stimulus funding for the NIH challenge grant program was extremely competitive and the University received only a handful of these awards," said Jeff Blank, U.Va. assistant vice president for research. "Clearly, the innovative research David Grissmer and Andrew Mashburn proposed regarding the ties between motor skills and cognitive ability in elementary school students resonated with the funding agency."