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Executive function — a sort of air traffic controller of the brain — has been one of the hottest topics in education circles over the past 15 years. Yet experts disagree over what it is exactly, to what extent it really causes academic problems and whether anything can be done to improve one’s executive functioning. Even today, a professional diagnosis of executive function disorder alone generally won’t qualify a child for special education services.
Now a new large study makes a compelling case that certain executive functioning difficulties can emerge as early as kindergarten and they dramatically increase the likelihood of serious academic problems in the first half of elementary school. Troubles with executive function can put these children on a low and sluggish learning curve that they are unlikely to break out of.
“Sometimes we can have in the early grades a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach, but when you see a kid who might have some early indicators of difficulties, that wait-and-see approach can be a wait-to-fail orientation,” said Paul Morgan, one of the co-authors of the study and a professor at Pennsylvania State University.
The study by six researchers at Penn State and the University of California, Irvine, “Executive Functions Deficits in Kindergarten Predict Repeated Academic Difficulties Across Elementary School,” was presented earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in New York.
Following more than 11,000 kindergarten students from 2010 onward through third grade, this study is newly possible because the National Center for Education Statistics recently added measures of executive function for the young children that it periodically collects data on. (The statistics unit of the Department of Education regularly compiles data on groups of children that reflect nation’s geographic, racial and income diversity for researchers to analyze.)
The Department of Education collected information on three common aspects of executive function: working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control. Working memory is, roughly speaking, the ability to store and manipulate new information quickly. For older children or adults, the ability to multiply 27 times 32 in your head without pencil and paper would be an impressive display of working memory. To test it in young children, researchers gave two-number sequences, such as “1, 3,” and asked the child repeat the sequence in reverse order. In this example, a correct answer would be “3, 1.” Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch tasks. To test it, kindergarteners were asked to sort 22 picture cards first by color, then by shape. Some cards had black borders and, in the final task, children had to sort black-bordered cards by color and the others by shape. Inhibitory control was not objectively tested, but relied on teachers’ ratings of how easily each kindergartener was distracted or could resist impulses.
Then Morgan and his co-authors looked at whether low kindergarten scores in each of the three aspects of executive function — working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control — were associated with lower academic performance in reading, math and science in first-, second- and third-grades. By controlling for the students’ skills at the beginning of kindergarten, the researchers sought to isolate the importance of executive functioning and not conflate it with other academic issues.
Regardless of race, income and early childhood academic abilities, the researchers found that kids who had executive function problems were more likely to struggle academically in subsequent years. This study saw stronger causal links between executive function and academic performance than other studies had.
The researchers also discovered that executive function isn’t a single construct or concept. Kids who had working memory deficits might not have any problems with cognitive flexibility or inhibitory control, and vice versa. Deficiencies in the three aspects of executive function didn’t tend to correlate, or exist simultaneously in one child, the researchers found.
By separating out different aspects of executive function, the researchers could also see which ones mattered. Working memory problems proved to be the most worrisome. Children who scored in the bottom 10 percent on this measure were five times more likely to be among the lowest performing students in later grades than to be an average student. Kindergarten children with working memory deficits were especially unlikely to be members of the highest achieving group.
“This study helps us identify which children seem to be especially likely to experience repeated academic struggles,” said Morgan. “These things start to happen early. We want to try and direct our intervention efforts to early time periods, when those efforts will be more effective, and before these kids start to internalize more negative feelings about themselves academically, avoid reading practice, and engage in more problematic behaviors.”
This research raises two follow-up issues. Should 5-year-olds be screened for executive function problems? And how best to help them?
There’s a big debate over whether current interventions for executive function are effective. Some researchers argue that high-quality math or reading instruction would be better than targeting executive function. A multi-million dollar industry of brain games and apps claims to boost working memory. But several rigorous, large analyses of these programs have found that, while you can show improvements on a particular brain-training task, these improvements don’t translate into academic gains in the classroom. (See here and here.)
The next task for researchers is to find interventions that do.