Understanding heterogeneity in pre-schoolers at risk for mathematical learning difficulties via latent profile analysis

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This is one of two research projects examining children's ability to learn maths. KU Leuven is the home institution for this project. To view the Melbourne-based partner project, click here.

It has been repeatedly observed that children vary substantially in their levels of mathematical knowledge prior to school entry with some children already showing difficulties in their mathematical skills. These difficulties have been labelled to be highly heterogeneous, although the existing body of evidence has not investigated this heterogeneity on a fine-grained level.


Against this background, the current project will examine heterogeneity in early mathematical skills in preschool via a person-centered approach in struggling children who are at risk for developing difficulties in academic learning. We will jointly study predictors of mathematical ability and of reading ability to fully understand the overlap and co-occurrence of learning difficulties in mathematics and in reading. We will also longitudinally follow-up children from preschool to grade 1 and 2 of primary school to examine how profiles of strengths and weaknesses in preschool change over time as children go to school.


To realize these objectives, we will be adopting a functionally defined recruitment approach starting from a large and mixed sample of pre-schoolers with learning-related problems considered by teachers and health practitioners to be at risk for developing learning difficulties. The combination of functionally defined samples with person-centered analyses, such as latent profile analysis, has been suggested as a novel way to map the heterogeneity associated with poor school performance. This will add to the research and practice on early identification and intervention in children at risk for struggling with mathematics learning.

Project goals

    • Investigate heterogeneity in early mathematical skills in preschool via a person-centered approach focused on struggling children who are at risk for developing difficulties in academic learning.
    • Jointly study predictors of mathematical ability and of reading ability to fully understand the overlap and co-occurrence of learning difficulties in mathematics and in reading.
    • Longitudinally follow-up children from preschool to grade 1 and 2 of primary school to examine how profiles of strengths and weaknesses in preschool change over time as children go to school.

Supervision team

The University of Melbourne – Prof Lorraine Graham

KU Leuven – Prof Bert De Smedt

Click on the researcher's name above to learn more about their publication and grant successes.

Who we are looking for

We are seeking a PhD candidate with the following skills:

  • Demonstrated experience in the field of psychological sciences
  • Demonstrated experience in child development
  • Demonstrated ability to work independently and as part of a team
  • Demonstrated time and project management skills
  • Demonstrated ability to write research reports or other publications to a publishable standard (even if not published to date)
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills.
  • Demonstrated organisational skills, time management and ability to work to priorities.
  • Demonstrated problem-solving abilities.

Further details

      • The PhD candidate will benefit from the combined expertise of the project supervisors, and the embedding into two research environments.
      • Prof Bert De Smedt’s contribution will be in the areas of typical and atypical numerical and mathematical development; dyscalculia - mathematical learning disabilities; educational neuroscience and neurocognitive factors in academic development.  Prof Lorraine Graham’s contribution relates to the effective teaching of students with learning disabilities/difficulties, intervention research, sustainable learning, basic academic skills in literacy and numeracy, inclusive education practices, strategy instruction, and comprehension processes.
      • This PhD project will be based at KU Leuven with a minimum 12-month stay at the University of Melbourne.
      • The candidate will be enrolled in the PhD program at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at KU Leuven, and in the PhD program at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne.

      To apply for this joint PhD opportunity, and to view the entry requirements, visit How to apply.

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Apply for a joint PhD with the Toronto-Melbourne Research Training Group.

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