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Children's executive functions (EF) develop rapidly across the early elementary school years, however relatively little is known about the ways in which experience in school promotes this development. Moreover, despite growing interest in connections between education and neuroscience, and the general assumption that experience in school is also promoting changes in the brain, to date there is limited causal evidence linking experience in school to changes in children's brain activity. This is in part because studying the impact of contextual factors on development - both brain and behavioral - requires samples of children that are much larger than those typically often observed in neuroscientific research.
In this presentation we will outline the strategies we have used in our laboratory to develop larger-scale data sets that allow us to begin to explore complex child x context interactions. Focusing on the behavioral and neural correlates of cognitive control as measured using event-related potentials (ERPs) in a response inhibition task, we will describe how we have linked a network of individuals employing similar techniques and methods in diverse populations of children. Drawing on data collected laboratories with varying research goals but shared measures, we will then provide an example of the value of aggregating across multiple data sets.
Specifically, we will outline our recent efforts to evaluate the psychometrics of ERP and behavioral measures at a scale not previously possible, which has provided important information regarding how these measures should be employed. In addition, we will outline our efforts to employ quasi-experimental methods to examine the impact of experience in school on children's ERPs and related behaviors elicited a response inhibition task. Using data drawn from 5 studies, each with ERP measures of response inhibition drawn from over 550 children between the ages of 5-7, used regression discontinuity to examine the impact of school on neural correlates of cognitive control. Leveraging a forcing variable based on the number of days a child's birthday falls relative to the cutoff for school admission, results show that school experiences affect two components of the event-related brain potential related to cognitive control, with the impact of 1 year of school schooling reaching 1.11-1.4 standard deviations and p=0.04 for ERP outcome measures. In contrast, effects of schooling were not seen on related behavioral measures, indicating that neurophysiological measures sensitive to cognitive control processes present an opportunity to observe changes in EF before they can be observed in behavior.