Publication Date

April 2016


Anna Shusterman


General Scholarship


English (United States)


Executive functions (EFs) are cognitive skills essential to formulating plans and goals, maintaining attention, switching between personal and spatial perspectives, and solving novel problems. This review highlights key findings on EFs in early childhood over the last twenty years. Core topics in this area of research explore structure models, measurements, neuroimaging, and the association EFs has with academics. Within the structural model research on EFs in children, there has been controversy regarding which of the potential models to use: a generalized EF skill model, a group of distinct cognitive processes model, or a combination of the two. This controversy is one of a few challenges facing the development of EF measures. Other challenges include ensuring ecological validity and limiting the effect of task impurity. Neuroimaging techniques, particularly functional near-infrared spectroscopy, allow researchers to identify neural changes that parallel behavioral EF development and could potentially clarify the structure of EFs. Cognitive skills are positively associated with academic achievement which makes understanding EFs in young children important. A few researchers propose that EF skills in children can be trained, which can lead to improvements in academic performance. Support for this theory is not yet strong. However, if true, the causal relationship would have implications for early childhood education. For instance, the identification of environmental and biological risk factors associated with poor EFs, including parenting style, socioeconomic status, individual stress, and genetics, could result in interventions for children at greater risk during EF development. Current studies about interventions for these risk factors and EFs have promising outcomes and the potential for widespread use in early childhood education with lasting benefits.



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