Strong Executive Function Skills in Kindergarten Lowers Risk of Academic Difficulties Later


Nov 23, 2018


We all want our children to perform the best in school and think that teaching them maths and ABCs in pre-K will do the trick — but a new research suggests that focusing on knowledge in these early years may not be the best way to set up kids for academic success.

When in kindergarten, developing executive function, that is, the set of cognitive processes that facilitate their abilities to plan, problem-solve and control impulses, will do more for their academic performance long term, than rote memorization. Researchers have found that any deficit in executive function skills at this age can increase the risk of kids experiencing academic difficulties in mathematics, reading and science between grade 1 and 3.

What are the odds? According to the study, published in the journal Child Development, kindergarten children with a working memory deficit — an executive function skill that allows kids to recall and update information — were three to five times more likely to experience academic difficulty than the peers without poor working memory.

Read more: So Your Toddler Knows 2+2=4? Don’t Pop the Champagne.

Therefore, researcher Paul Morgan said, “We should be doing all we can to assist these children early on in their school careers because children who are already experiencing repeated academic difficulties during elementary school (Grade 1-6) are likely to continue to struggle in school as they age.” Morgan is professor of education and demography at New Penn State, who led two studies to arrive at this conclusion.

For the first study, Morgan and his research team analyzed about 9,000 kindergarten children who were followed until the end of second grade, finding that kindergarten students with better executive function displayed greater reading, mathematics and science achievement, as well as fewer externalizing and internalizing problem behaviors by second grade.

In the second study, they analyzed data from about 11,000 children who were followed from kindergarten to third grade, finding deficits in executive function during kindergarten consistently increased the risk that kids would experience repeated academic difficulties throughout elementary school. The risks for working-memory deficits, or difficulties using and manipulating new information, were especially strong.

Read more: What is Growth Mindset in Children? And Why Should Parents Care?

“Our study also provides suggestive evidence that repeated academic difficulties may be the result of underlying cognitive impairments, not just a lack of basic skills acquisition,” said Morgan.

Bottom line? If you’re trying to set up your toddler or preschooler for success, focus on improving executive function skills rather than teaching them 2+2=4.




Written By Anubhuti Matta

Anubhuti Matta is an associate editor with The Swaddle. When not at work, she’s busy pursuing kathak, reading books on and by women in the Middle East or making dresses out of Indian prints.


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