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Teaching My Baby Math

Learning the Quantity Three

Last weekend’s experiment with the Find Your Name Game really got the former Psychology major in me thinking, and poor little Jenna(31m) is just along for the ride! Could I use Discrete Trial Teaching, (which is normally used as part of the ABA method of helping children with Autism), to help my neurotypical two year old learn the quantity three? Short answer: No, at least not yet.

We’ve done four trials so far, of about 12 questions each. I ask Jenna to hand me the quantity one, two or three. Sometimes I vary my speech. “Give me three. Give me the card that has two dots on it.” etc. Always by the third try I do whatever it takes to make sure she gets the right answer, even if it means handing her the card to give to me. After four separate five minute sessions with this activity, Jenna’s mastery has gone from 50% to 50%. She knows one and two, but she still doesn’t know three.

But here is the crazy part! By trial three, Jenna was pretending to be a puppy. She arffed, she wagged her tail, and she picked up each card with her teeth. I’ve never led a math activity before that involved so much slobber. It made me really sad, because if either of the boys I had done ABA therapy with back in college had suddenly started to become Rover it would have been a Hallelujah moment for their whole families. Learning to do Pretend Play was a big goal for both of them.

Okay. Melancholy aside, the teacher in me didn’t want to give up. What about adding in a hands-on, Constrcutivst component? Could Jenna put three raisins in each muffin tin? Once again, yes and no. Half way through the activity Jenna started to hover her hand over the muffin tin, pretend to put the third raisin in, wait for my eye contact, snatch the raisin up to her mouth, gobble it up and giggle. She was openly mocking me! There wasn’t any clear indication that she knew what three was either. Jenna was just tricking me over and over again, until she finally ate all of the raisins holus-bolus.

It was time to bring out the big guns. This picture looks rather gross, but I am holding three chocolate chips in my hand. In this new strategy, I showed Jenna my hand and asked her how many chocolate chips I was holding. If she could tell me the right answer by the third try, she got to eat the chocolate chips. If she couldn’t, I ate the candy instead. (I’m mean and I love chocolate!) We played this over and over again, and it was the same outcome as before. Jenna understands the quantities one and two, but she does not recognize three.

Have I run into some type of Piaget developmental brick wall? Would Jenna’s brother Bruce have been able to do this at 31 months? I wish I knew. If you have a two year old, please give it a try and let me know what happens!


  1. Claire H. says:

    My oldest DD I’m pretty sure would’ve been able to do this at 31 months, and my youngest DD (who has autism) definitely not. My DS I’m really not sure. He was a late talker and Mr. Independent so at that age, I would have no clue that he could do something until one day seemingly out of the blue he would decide to show me.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      Therein lies the rub. I think Bruce might have been able to do it too. Of course, Jenna can do a ton of things that Bruce couldn’t do at that age, –like go to Mommy and Me class without biting anyone!

  2. jengod says:

    I’m *sure it’s developmental! It must be, right?

    P.S. You should obviously have another kid so you can run more experiments. 😉

  3. Lia says:

    I don’t think my first comment went through, apologies if you get this twice. I tried with Ben (32 months) who was able to recognize 3 piles of trains instantly (in groups of 1, 2 and 3). I had no idea this was a developmental thing so I just assumed he’d be able to recognize 4 as well but he was only so-so on that amount. He’d start counting them out, sometimes we arrived at 4, sometimes he counted 10 imaginary trains. So interesting.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      That IS interesting! I’m going to have to look this up to find out when the developmental range of “normal” is for knowing the quantity three. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Lilac says:

    I’m starting RightStart Math with my 30-month old twin girls, which is based on the concept that anyone (even infants, claims the author) can recognize quantities up to 5. So far the girls can easily recognize groups of 1, 2, and 3. But if we get any higher than that (like 4), they will just call out some random number (6, 10, etc..). The interesting thing is if I show them 3 and then I tell them I’m adding one more, they will know it is 4. I’ve been making all sorts of fun manipulatives to try to get them to recognize 4 and 5, but so far not much luck (I’ll have to experiment with the chocolate chips, too!). Oh, and one of my girls like to pretend she’s a dog for basically every activity we do, as well – aren’t they so cute at this age?

    • jenbrdsly says:

      That’s very cool that you have started Right Start A! I think I’ll be giving it a go when my daughter turns three. She can recognize quantities up to four now, but we still need to work on patterns.

  5. Lezah St Jean says:

    Your last way of trying to teach your daughter quantities is very familiar. I did the same thing, but used Cheese balls with my son when he was about 25 months old. Being able to eat the correct number was what cemented the amounts 1-5 in his mind. What is that saying? The way to a mans heart is through his stomach. My kid loves his food.

    We then moved on to playing money pig. I would lay out pennies of the amounts 1-5 one set at a time and once he got it right he could put the coins in his money pig. Something he loves to do.

    The next step we did was for me to lay down a numeral and my son would put the amount of coins, Cheerios, cars or counting bears under it.

    My son is now 28 months and we currently do simple equations up to five. I lay out the equation in numeral form. 2+3= and my son lays out the amount of both numbers under the numerals and then pushes them over into one group and by subtitizing puts the correct numeral after the =. So far so good.

    We are loosely following right start math and are slowly moving onto higher numbers. But 6 is confusing to him. Oh well….. All in time.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      That’s really impressive! I don’t think Jenna could do equations yet. Plus, I haven’t taught her numerals either. I wonder if your son is good at puzzles? It sounds like he is quite gifted in numbers and spatial thinking.

      • Lezah St Jean says:

        James goes through stages of excelling at a certain thing then peters out to become average. Maybe a little above. He becomes fixated i guess you could say. And i let him lead. He crawled at 5 months then walked at 8 months. He then moved into fine motor skills, ring stackers, shape sorters etc. At about 18 months for quite a while he was learning sight words. Once he could read about 50 of those he moved onto phonics and once he could decode basic CVC he moved onto math. Now his new fixation seems to be writing/drawing.
        My son was speech delayed with 2 major regressions. His speech is now finally catching up. But his Early intervention team have wondered about him being on the Austim spectrum. He seems to be incredibly high functioning if he is. But he still has certain quirks that we are not sure if they are toddler quirks or red flags. For about a year he has nearly every red flag possible.
        As for puzzles, he excelled at those for a while, when he was fixated in them, but now he is average.

      • jenbrdsly says:

        It sounds like James has a lot of good things going for him (including an awesome mom!). At the risk of sounding like a crazy person, have you tried going GF/CF for a couple of weeks to see if it makes a difference?

  6. Lezah St Jean says:

    I have not tried a gluten or casein free diet. I myself have a casein sensitivity and I break out in hives if I consume too much. When my sin was an infant he could not tolerate my breast milk if I had too much casein. When he switched to milk as a toddler he couldn’t tolerate it. Only in the last 8 months has he been able to drink it. He did okay with soy or breastmilk until then.
    Interesting enough my sons first speech regression was when I tied to introduce a little cows milk at 12 months. His second speech regression was when we tried again after he weaned. I think I have some research to do.

    And I love your blog, I love reading your ideas. 🙂

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