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Your child’s brain on math: Don’t bother?

Your child’s brain on math: Don’t bother?

Parents whose children are struggling with math often view intense tutoring as the best way to help them master crucial skills, but a new study released on Monday suggests that for some kids even that is a lost cause.

According to the research, the size of one key brain structure and the connections between it and other regions can help identify the 8- and 9-year olds who will hardly benefit from one-on-one math instruction.

“We could predict how much a child learned from the tutoring based on measures of brain structure and connectivity,” said Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, who led the research.

The study, published in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to use brain imaging to look for a connection between brain attributes and the ability to learn arithmetic. But despite its publication in a well-respected journal, the research immediately drew criticism.

Jonathan Moreno, professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, fears that some parents and teachers might “give up now” on a math-challenged child. “If it gets into the popular consciousness that it’s wise to have your kid’s brain checked out” before making decisions about academic options, he said, “that raises huge issues.”

Menon and his fellow scientists agree that their research shouldn’t lead to hasty conclusions. They are exploring whether any interventions might change the brain in such a way that children who struggle with math can benefit more from tutoring.

Just as learning to juggle increases the amount of gray matter in the area of adult brains that is responsible for spatial attention, said Menon, maybe something could pump up regions relevant to learning arithmetic before a child begins math tutoring.

Until then, he said “it’s conceivable” that parents will interpret the new study as saying some kids cannot benefit from math tutoring, “and give up before even trying. How this plays out is far from clear.”

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