Executive Function Deficits Start Early

Alan Gottlieb, Compositive Staff

The air traffic controller of the brain can exhibit signs of deficiency as early as kindergarten and result in learning curves that are difficult to overcome.

Problems with executive functioning – “a sort of air traffic controller for the brain”– begins as early as kindergarten, a new study by researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of California-Irvine.

Some controversy exists over what if any interventions help mitigate these deficits.

Executive function difficulties “dramatically increase the likelihood of serious academic problems in the first half of elementary school. Troubles with executive function can put these children on a low and sluggish learning curve that they are unlikely to break out of,” according to an article from The Hechinger Report

Researchers were able to follow more than 11,000 kindergarten students from 2010 onward through third grade, thanks to data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics. One key finding was that executive functioning cannot be defined as one discrete skill, but rather is an amalgamation of various sub-skills.

Key among these are working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control. 

“Working memory is, roughly speaking, the ability to store and manipulate new information quickly,” the article explains. Deficits in this area were most worrisome and long-lasting, researchers found. 

“Children who scored in the bottom 10 percent on this measure were five times more likely to be among the lowest performing students in later grades than to be an average student,” the Hechinger article reported. “Kindergarten children with working memory deficits were especially unlikely to be members of the highest achieving group.”

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch tasks, and inhibitory control is the ability to keep from being distracted too easily. 

“Regardless of race, income and early childhood academic abilities, the researchers found that kids who had executive function problems were more likely to struggle academically in subsequent years,” the article says.

So what to do about this challenge? 

“There’s a big debate over whether current interventions for executive function are effective,” the article concludes. “Some researchers argue that high-quality math or reading instruction would be better than targeting executive function. A multi-million dollar industry of brain games and apps claims to boost working memory. But several rigorous, large analyses of these programs have found that, while you can show improvements on a particular brain-training task, these improvements don’t translate into academic gains in the classroom.

“The next task for researchers is to find interventions that do.”

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