Approximate Number System Task Performance: Associations With Domain-General and Domain-Specific Cognitive Skills in Young Children

Mary Wagner Fuhs, Kimberly Turner Nesbitt, Connor D. O’Rear


We investigated the associations between young children’s domain-general executive functioning (EF) skills and domain-specific spontaneous focusing on number (SFON) tendencies and their performance on an approximate number system (ANS) task, paying particular attention to variations in associations across different trial types with either congruent or incongruent non-numerical continuous visual cues. We found that children’s EF skills were strongly related to their performance on ANS task trials in which continuous visual cues were incongruent with numerosity. Novel to the current study, we found that children’s SFON tendencies were specifically related to their performance on ANS task trials in which continuous visual cues were congruent with numerosity. Children’s performance on ANS task trials in which children can use both congruent numerical and non-numerical continuous visual cues to approximate large quantities may be related to their unprompted tendency to focus on number in their early environment when there are not salient distractors present. On the other hand, children’s performance on incongruent ANS trials may be less a function of number-specific knowledge but more of children’s domain-general ability to inhibit salient but conflicting or irrelevant stimuli. Importantly, these effects held even when accounting for global math achievement and children’s cardinality knowledge. Overall, results support the consideration of both domain-specific and domain-general cognitive factors in developmental models of children’s early ability to attend to numerosity and provide a possible means for reconciling previous conflicting research findings.


approximate number system; executive function; spontaneous focus on number; preschool mathematics

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