Venera Gashaj

Motor performance, executive functions, early mathematical achievement and spatial cognition in children

PhD student: Venera Gashaj (Albanian & Swiss)

Supervisors: Fred Mast & Claudia M. Roebers

Experimental setting

Piaget’s cognitive-developmental theory suggests that self-movement in the environment offers toddlers the opportunity to explore the world so they can reach their cognitive milestones. But also after early childhood the relation between cognitive and motor skills is still important; both aspects follow similar developmental timetables with accelerated progression in kindergarten and elementary school and a protracted development into adolescence. It was shown that delayed or atypical motor development typically co-occurs with cognitive deficits and vice versa. 

Experimental setting

There are two different theoretical accounts for the relation between cognitive and motor development in the literature stemming from different disciplines: For one embodied cognition which refers to the view that cognition depends on sensorimotor capacities and bodily processes beyond the brain itself claims that body movements may facilitate developing a sense of numerosity and abstract representations (needed especially for mathematical achievement). On the other side neuropsychological research suggests co-activation during certain cognitive and motor tasks in the prefrontal cortex, cerebellum and connecting structures. 

In this PhD project the major research question is: what is the role of executive functions and motor skills for individual differences in number sense, a precursor of children`s later mathematical achievement? Furthermore is there evidence that motor skills are substantial predictors for academic achievement in elementary school?  Which of the theoretical perspectives seems to be better suited to account for the relation between motor and cognitive skills, especially when the domain of mathematical achievement is considered? 

Photo Venera

The work was started in September 2013. Together with a PhD student financed by the canton of Bern we collected data from over 150 kindergarten children in the domains of executive functioning, motor skills (fitness and coordination), and precursors of later school skills in spring 2014. Eighteen months later (Fall 2015) when these children had just begun their second grade, participants were tested again using the same tasks plus additional school achievement tests. We are currently analyzing the data, preparing publications, and preparing the thesis defense