Executive Functions in the Classroom

NYU Steinhard, USA

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Executive functions refer to cognitive abilities involved in the control and coordination of information in the service of goal-directed actions.1,2 As such, executive functions can be defined as a supervisory system that is important for planning, reasoning ability and the integration of thought and action.3 At a more fine-grained level, however, executive functions, as studied in the cognitive development literature, has come to refer to specific interrelated information processing abilities that enable the resolution of conflicting information; namely, working memory, defined as the holding in mind and updating of information while performing some operation on it; inhibitory control, defined as the inhibition of prepotent or automatized responding when engaged in task completion; and mental flexibility, defined as the ability to shift attentional or cognitive set among distinct but related dimensions or aspects of a given task.4,5,6,7


Executive functions are of growing interest in the field of child development research as an indicator of child health and well-being generally and of self-regulation specifically. The extent to which young children can appropriately resolve conflicting information and inhibit automatic responding when needed is seen as an indicator of the capacity for reflection and the ability to guide behaviour using future-oriented thinking. Such abilities should, in turn, lead to well regulated behaviour and to increased adaptation to a variety of contexts. Over the past two decades, a number of studies have demonstrated the feasibility of measuring executive function in young children.8,9,10 As well, during this time period a number of studies have demonstrated that executive functioning is meaningfully related to a number of aspects of child development including social-emotional competence11,12 and early academic ability.13,14,15 Studies of the development of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct problems, as well as research on learning disabilities,16 indicate that executive function deficits may be a central aspect of these disorders.17


Several issues are relevant to research on executive functions in children. Primarily these issues relate to construct definition and validity and to the need for measures suitable for longitudinal use. Importantly, prior research with diverse test batteries with adult samples has indicated the presence of three distinct but interrelated factors for executive functions, namely, working memory, inhibitory control and attentional flexibility.18 Similar measurement work with young children, however, it has yielded evidence of only a single underlying factor associated with executive function ability.19,20 These findings have given rise to questions about a possible differentiation of executive functions from a single factor into distinct factors in adolescence or young adulthood. They have also led to questions about inherent limits on the measurement of executive function abilities in young children and the idea that assessments may become more precise with age. Additionally, these questions have highlighted the need for measures of executive function that can be used longitudinally with children. Most measures of executive function appropriate for use with young children tend to discriminate ability within a relatively narrow age range with ceiling and floor effects at older and younger ages.21 Recently, however, a number of measures have been developed that are appropriate for longitudinal use.22,23

Key Research Questions

Given evidence indicating that executive function is important for school readiness and a central aspect of self-regulation in children, key questions relate to the identification of the relevant influences on the development of executive function and on its malleability. Of specific interest are questions relating to the ways in which poverty affects executive function development and the idea that effects of poverty on it might account in part for socioeconomic status (SES) related gaps in school readiness and early school achievement.

Recent Research Results

Recent research results provide valuable insight into the development of executive functions in early childhood. Several measures appropriate for longitudinal use with children as young as 30 months of age have been developed and are being validated. These include a version of the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS) task appropriate for longitudinal use,24 as well as a measure known as the Shape School.25 Similarly, an innovative task battery has been developed that contains distinct tasks designed to measure working memory, inhibitory control and attentional flexibility.

Increased precision in the definition and measurement of executive functions in children has gone hand in hand with longitudinal studies examining its development and its relation to multiple aspects of child development. Several studies, using a variety of measures, have demonstrated moderate to large associations between executive function ability and school achievement in the early elementary grades.13,14,15,26,27 Importantly, these associations were observed when controlling for general intelligence or for early indicators of achievement, or both; in fact, executive function measures substantially attenuated or fully accounted for variance in outcomes associated with measures of general intelligence and early academic ability. 

Results from a number of studies, including a population-based longitudinal sample of children followed from birth in predominantly low-income homes indicate that the quality of parenting mediates effects of the social and demographic risk on the development of executive functions at age 3.28,29,30 As well, findings from the longitudinal study demonstrate that stress physiology, as indicated by levels of the glucocorticoid hormone cortisol in children, is related to executive functions and mediates in part effects of parenting and early risk on executive functions.29

Demonstration of relations between early experience and executive functions and between executive functions and social-emotional and academic outcomes have given rise to intervention studies examining executive functions as a potential target of efforts to promote social-emotional and academic competence in children at high risk for school failure. Results from these studies are generally positive, either suggesting or indicating that program-related changes in executive functions mediate, to some extent, program effects on academic and behavioural outcomes.30,31,32

Research Gaps

Current gaps in the literature include the need for greater precision in the longitudinal measurement of executive functions in early childhood, the identification of early precursors of executive function development that can be measured in the infant and toddler period, and evidence on the malleability or trainability of executive function development. Increased precision in the longitudinal measurement of executive functions will allow for a better understanding of the typical developmental course of executive function ability and on determinants of change in executive functions. Identification of early precursors can help to provide information on early indicators which can be used to identify risk for executive function and self-regulation difficulties in early childhood. Innovative parenting or early child care programs might reasonably be expected to increase executive functioning in early childhood. A central gap in research on executive function development concerns the extent to which it is modifiable by experience.


Research on executive functions in early childhood has increased exponentially over the last decade. In general, the research literature on the construct indicates that executive functions can be reliably and validly measured in early childhood and that measures of executive function ability are meaningfully related to multiple aspects of child development including social-emotional and academic outcomes. As such, extant research has tended to confirm that executive function development is a central indicator of school readiness abilities. As well, research suggests that early executive function deficits may be sensitive indicators of risk for learning disability and perhaps of risk for early developing psychopathology. More research is needed, however, on the developmental course of executive function abilities, not only in early childhood but throughout middle childhood and adolescence. As well, research is needed to address relevant aspects of children’s home and school environments that may promote or impede executive function development. Increased understanding of experiential influences on executive function development can be paired with a growing research base on the underlying neurobiology of executive cognition.

Implications for Parents, Services and Policy

Evidence indicates the relevance of executive function abilities to a number of aspects of healthy child development. This evidence highlights an ongoing need for the identification of specific aspects of experience and specific pedagogical approaches that exercise executive function abilities. Evidence linking executive function abilities to school readiness and early school achievement suggest the possibility of developing new curricular approaches or modifying existing approaches in early childhood programs and in the early elementary grades to more explicitly focus on executive function abilities. Current evidence suggests that early childhood programs that focus on self-regulation may be effective in promoting executive function abilities in children.32,33 Indeed, it may be that diverse types of activities ranging from yoga to mindfulness training to martial arts to aerobic exercise have broad benefits on core attention shifting, impulse control and working memory abilities that comprise executive functions.


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How to cite this article:

Blair C. Executive Functions in the Classroom. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Morton JB, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. https://www.child-encyclopedia.com/executive-functions/according-experts/executive-functions-classroom. Published: January 2013. Accessed April 18, 2024.

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