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Executive Function and Academic Achievement: Longitudinal Relations from Early Childhood to Adolescence

Fri, October 5, 1:15 to 2:45pm, Doubletree Hilton, Room: Coronado


Executive function (EF) refers to a broad set of neurocognitive processes involved in purposeful, goal directed control of thought, behavior and emotion that allow for adaptation to fluctuating environmental demands and includes working memory, attention control, response inhibition and thoughtful planning of future actions (Zelazo, & Carlson, 2012; Willoughby, Blair, Writh, & Greenberg, 2010). A large body of research has demonstrated substantial relations between executive function skills and an array of developmental, academic, cognitive and behavioral outcomes; and have been linked to achievement, literacy, health, wealth, and criminality (Duncan et al., 2007; Lan, Legare, Ponitz, Li, & Morrison, 2011; Moffitt et al., 2012).
Despite years of research charting the early growth of EF and their relations to emergent academic skills, few studies have examined the longitudinal predictors of EF and academic outcomes over a wide range of years. Hence, the present study examines the stability of EF from early childhood (54 months) to adolescence (15 years) using a prospective longitudinal design in a large, national database (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development SECCYD; N = 1273), using a battery of standardized achievement and cognitive measures. Testing longitudinal associations across two assessments will allow us to evaluate the long-term predictability of EF from early childhood through adolescence. Similarly, we will also test relations between EF measures in early childhood and academic achievement in adolescence to build on a substantial body of literature demonstrating cross sectional and short-term associations between EF and academic achievement.
We found that among all EF components, only working memory at 54 months significantly predicted working memory at 15 years and that working memory was the only significant predictor of achievement at age 15. In contrast, all early achievement measures were significant predictors of later achievement. Further, no demographic or home environment variables at 54 months significantly predicted EF at 15, and only maternal education significantly explained variance in adolescent math and literacy achievement. These findings demonstrate the remarkable stability of working memory and highlight its importance for academic outcomes across development. However, the lack of associations of inhibition and attention measures to corresponding measures later during development suggests the need for more developmentally sensitive measures of EF. Given that the EF measures used in this study are commonly used in educational and psychological research, more care should go into understanding the psychometric properties across development.


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