Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Readings

Main content start

What is Executive Function (EF)?

Executive function (EF) refers to a set of cognitive processes that enable individuals to plan, organize, initiate, monitor, and adapt their behavior in order to achieve goals. Traditionally, EF models have highlighted three distinct capabilities: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. 

Recommended Readings

  • In a seminal paper, Diamond (2013) explores the concept of executive function, clarifies controversies, and discusses issues around measurement. 
  • In a recent review, Ibbotson (2023) delineates mechanisms of change that are at play in the development of executive function across the lifespan. 
  • Doebel (2020) outlines a new way of thinking about EF from a developmental perspective, arguing that the development of EF is to be understood as the emergence of skills in using control in the service of specific goals.

How do We Measure EF?

EF is typically measured using direct assessments, which involve administering standardized tasks to children, or adult reports, which consist of adult observation and ratings of children. Direct assessments are conceptually precise because they can target specific skills, are relatively quick to administer, and have a rigorous psychometric evidence base. Adult reports are, in general, more ecologically valid than direct assessments because adults observe how children apply EF skills in everyday environments. EF measures should be selected based on the study objectives and adapted based on specific contextual considerations.  

Recommended Readings

  • McCoy (2019) reviews the properties, strengths, and weaknesses of different EF measures. 
  • Obradović & Willoughby (2019) review direct assessment tasks used in low- and middle-income countries, procedures for task selection and administration, and contextual influences on EF measures. 

What are Equity and Cultural Considerations for EF?

EFs are universally relevant for learning and development across cultures as children increasingly regulate their behavior in educational settings. However, local contexts and socialization practices influence EF development and inform the specific goal-directed behaviors children pursue.   

Recommended Readings

  • Gaskins & Alcala (2023) discuss contextual factors behind why children may not perform well on existing direct assessment tasks and develop novel contextualized tasks. 
  • Haslam et al. (2019) review how self-regulation varies based on cultural contexts and call for examining collective regulation. 
  • Miller-Cotto et al. (2021) present a commentary on how to reconceptualize EF for low-income and minoritized populations. 
  • Jukes et al. (2021) conducted mixed methods research with Tanzanian parents, teachers, and children to develop a novel measure of social-emotional learning that demonstrates a bottom-up approach to developing an assessment tool.

Why Care About EF?

Executive functioning is associated with many psychological outcomes throughout development and adult life, including academic outcomes and mental health. Understanding the relationship between EF and psychological and behavioral outcomes is a key puzzle in the field of developmental science and psychology. 

Recommended Readings

  • Miller-Cotto and Byrnes (2020) analyzed data from a U.S. national sample of children followed from kindergarten to fifth grade to characterize the relationship between working memory and academic achievement in young children. 
  • Obradovic et al. (2022) examine the unique relevance of EF and self-regulation behaviors for understanding early childhood experiences and preschoolers’ outcomes in rural Pakistan. 
  • Willoughby et al. (2019) investigate the association between EF and school readiness in young children in Kenya. 
  • Sjöwall and Thorell (2019) provide a critical appraisal of the role of EF in early childhood ADHD by analyzing data from 4- to 6-year-old children in Sweden. 

How to Support EF?

EF develops throughout the lifespan and can be considered a relatively stable psychological trait. However, EF is not immutable. Many successful efforts have been made to improve EF through educational and clinical interventions. 

Recommended Readings

  • Giovanetti et al. (2021) report on the impact of an individualized and adaptive cognitive intervention on EF in preschoolers from lower-income homes in Argentina. 
  • Howard et al. (2017) investigate the effect of embedding cognitive activities in shared book reading on EF in Australian preschoolers. 
  • McCoy et al. (2021) examine how a social-emotional learning program influences EF in homicide-affected communities in Brazil.
  • Wolf (2019) analyzes the longitudinal effects of high-quality preschool on children’s developmental outcomes in Ghana.

 

References 

Here is the list of most relevant the GEFI Members' publications that address issues of assessing and studying EF or related skills and behaviors in children around the world. 

  • Draper C. E., Cook, C. J., Allie R., Howard, S. J., Makaula, H., Merkley, R., Mshudulu, M., Rahbeeni, R., Tshetu, N., & Scerif, G. (2023) The role of partnerships to shift power asymmetries in research with vulnerable communities: Reflections from an early childhood development project in South Africa. Journal of Cognition and Development. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/15248372.2023.2215863
  • Draper, C.E., Cook, C. J., Howard, S. J., Makaula, H., Merkley, R., Mshudulu, M., Tshetu, N., & Scerif, G . (2023). Caregiver perspectives of risk and protective factors influencing early childhood development in low‐income, urban settings: A social ecological perspective. Infant and Child Development. Avvance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/icd.2417 
  • Draper, C. E., Klingberg, S., Wrottesley, S. V., Milner, K., Fisher, J., Lakes, K. D., & Yousafzai, A. K. (2022) Interventions to promote development in the next 1000 days: A mapping review. Child: Care, Health and Development, 49, 617–629. https://doi.org/10.1111/cch.13084
  • D'Sa, N. (2019). Adopt, contextualize, or adapt? Understanding the complexities of modifying or developing a measure of children’s social and emotional competencies. In NISSEM Global Briefs: Education for the Social, the Sustainable and the Emotional (Vol 1.), 760–771. Retrieved from https://nissem.org/nissem-global-briefs/ngb-vol-i/ 
  • D'Sa, N., & Krupar, A. (2021). Developing and validating the International Social and Emotional Learning Assessment: Evidence from a pilot test with Syrian refugee children in Iraq. Journal on Education in Emergencies, 7(2), 20–56.  https://doi.org/10.33682/xdpq-bwp2 
  • Giovannetti, F., Pietto, M. L., Segretin, M. S., & Lipina, S. J. (2021). Impact of an individualized and adaptive cognitive intervention on working memory, planning and fluid reasoning processing in preschoolers from poor homes. Child Neuropsychology, 28, 597–626. https://doi.org/10.1080/09297049.2021.1998406 
  • Howard, S. J., Vasseleu, E., Neilsen-Hewett, C., de Rosnay, M., Chan, A. Y. C., Johnstone, S., Mavilidi, M., Pass, F., & Melhuish, E. (2021). Executive function and self-regulation: Bi-directional longitudinal associations and prediction of early academic skills. Frontiers of Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.733328   
  • Howard, S. J., & Melhuish, E. C. (2017). An Early Years Toolbox (EYT) for assessing early executive function, language, self-regulation, and social development: Validity, reliability, and preliminary norms. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 35(3), 255–275. https://doi.org/10.1177/0734282916633009 
  • Howard, S. J., Powell, T., Vasseleu, E., Johnstone, S., & Melhuish, E. C. (2017). Enhancing preschoolers' executive functions through embedding cognitive activities in shared book reading. Educational Psychology Review, 29(1), 153–174. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-016-9364-4
  • Krupar, A., D’Sa, N., Westrope, C., & Johna, J. F. (2019). Developing a holistic assessment of children's learning in the context of forced displacement: Case study from Dadaab, Kenya. NORRAG Special Issue, 80–83. 
  • Lipina, S.J. (2023). The importance of conceiving human development as a complex system. The Lancet Global Health, 11(1), e10–e11. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2214-109X(22)00502-2 
  • McCoy, D. C. (2022). Building a model of cultural universality with specificity for global early childhood development. Child Development Perspectives, 16(1), 27–33. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12438 
  • McCoy, D. C., Hanno, E. C., Ponczek, V., Pinto, C., Fonseca, G., & Marchi, N. (2021). Um compasso para aprender: A randomized trial of a social‐emotional learning program in homicide‐affected communities in Brazil. Child Development, 92(5), 1951–1968. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13579 
  • McCoy, D. C., Koepp, A. E., Jones, S. M., Bodrova, E., Leong, D. J., & Deaver, A. H. (2022). An observational approach for exploring variability in young children's regulation‐related skills within classroom contexts. Developmental Science, 25(6), e13250. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.13250 
  • Miller-Cotto, D., & Byrnes, J. P. (2020). What's the best way to characterize the relationship between working memory and achievement?: An initial examination of competing theories. Journal of Educational Psychology, 112, 1074–1084. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000395 
  • Miller-Cotto, D., Smith, L.V., Wang, A.H., & Ribner, A.D. (2022). Changing the conversation: A culturally responsive perspective on executive functions, minoritized children and their families. Infant and Child Development, 31, e2286. https://doi.org/10.1002/icd.2286
  • Obradović, J., Finch, J. E., Connolly. C., Siyal, S. & Yousafzai, A. (2022). The unique relevance of executive functions and self-regulation behaviors for understanding early childhood experiences and preschoolers' outcomes in rural Pakistan. Developmental Science, 25, e13271 https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.13271 
  • Obradović, J., & Steyer, L. (2022). Direct assessment of elementary school students' executive functions and motivation in classroom settings. In S. Jones, N. Lesaux & S. Barnes (Eds.), Measuring Noncognitive Skills in School Settings: Assessments of Executive Function and Social-Emotional Competencies (pp. 11–39). New York NY: Guilford Press. 
  • Obradović, J. & Willoughby, M. (2019). Studying executive function skills in young children in low-and-middle-income countries: Current progress and future directions. Child Development Perspectives, 13, 227–234. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12349 
  • Pietto, M. L., Giovannetti, F., Segretin, M. S., Kamienkowski, J. E., & Lipina, S. J. (2023). Increased integration of functional connectivity after cognitive intervention in preschoolers from low socioeconomic status. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0001541 
  • Ribner, A.D., Ahmed, S., Miller-Cotto, D., & Ellis, A.E. (2023). The role of executive function in shaping the longitudinal stability of math achievement during early elementary grades. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 64, 84–93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2023.02.004
  • Soares, L., Thorell, L.B., Barbi, M., Crisci, G., Nutley, S. B., & Burén, J. (2023). The role of executive function deficits, delay aversion and emotion dysregulation in internet gaming disorder and social media disorder: Links to psychosocial outcomes. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 12(1), 94–104. 33. https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.2023.00007 
  • Sjöwall, D. & Thorell, L. B. (2019), A critical appraisal of the role of neuropsychological deficits in preschool ADHD. Child Neuropsychology, 25, 60–80. https://doi.org/10.1080/09297049.2018.1447096 
  • Sjöwall, D., Roth, L., Lindqvist, S., & Thorell, L.B. (2013). Multiple Deficits in ADHD: Executive Dysfunction, Delay Aversion, Reaction Time Variability and Emotional Deficits, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54, 619–627. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12006
  • Suntheimer, N. M., & Wolf, S. (2023). Duration of poverty and Ghanaian children's learning and self-regulation outcomes. Applied Developmental Science. Advance online publication.  https://doi.org/10.1080/10888691.2023.2225774 
  • Willoughby M.T., Camerota, M., King, K., Nduku, T., & Piper, B. (2023). Leveraging item-level accuracy and reaction time to address ceiling effects in the measurement of inhibitory control in preschool-aged children. Frontiers in Psychology – Quantitative Psychology and Measurement, 14, 861441. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.861441 
  • Willoughby, M.T., Piper, B., Oyanga, A., Merseth, K.A., (2019). Measuring executive function skills in young children in Kenya: Associations with school readiness. Developmental Science, 22(5), e12818. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12818 
  • Wolf, S., Aurino, E., Suntheimer, N. M., Avornyo, E., Tsinigo, E., Behrman, J. R., & Aber, J. L. (2022). Medium-term protective effects of quality early childhood education during the Covid-19 pandemic in Ghana. Child Development, 93, 1912–1920. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13824 
  • Wolf, S. (2019). Year 3 follow-up impacts of the 'Quality Preschool for Ghana' interventions on child development. Developmental Psychology, 55(12), 2587–2602. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000843 

Future Readings 

Here is the list of most relevant the GEFI Members' publications that address issues of assessing and studying EF or related skills and behaviors in children around the world. 

  • Draper C. E., Cook, C. J., Allie R., Howard, S. J., Makaula, H., Merkley, R., Mshudulu, M., Rahbeeni, R., Tshetu, N., & Scerif, G. (2023) The role of partnerships to shift power asymmetries in research with vulnerable communities: Reflections from an early childhood development project in South Africa. Journal of Cognition and Development. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/15248372.2023.2215863
  • Draper, C.E., Cook, C. J., Howard, S. J., Makaula, H., Merkley, R., Mshudulu, M., Tshetu, N., & Scerif, G . (2023). Caregiver perspectives of risk and protective factors influencing early childhood development in low‐income, urban settings: A social ecological perspective. Infant and Child Development. Avvance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/icd.2417 
  • Draper, C. E., Klingberg, S., Wrottesley, S. V., Milner, K., Fisher, J., Lakes, K. D., & Yousafzai, A. K. (2022) Interventions to promote development in the next 1000 days: A mapping review. Child: Care, Health and Development, 49, 617–629. https://doi.org/10.1111/cch.13084
  • D'Sa, N. (2019). Adopt, contextualize, or adapt? Understanding the complexities of modifying or developing a measure of children’s social and emotional competencies. In NISSEM Global Briefs: Education for the Social, the Sustainable and the Emotional (Vol 1.), 760–771. Retrieved from https://nissem.org/nissem-global-briefs/ngb-vol-i/ 
  • D'Sa, N., & Krupar, A. (2021). Developing and validating the International Social and Emotional Learning Assessment: Evidence from a pilot test with Syrian refugee children in Iraq. Journal on Education in Emergencies, 7(2), 20–56.  https://doi.org/10.33682/xdpq-bwp2 
  • Giovannetti, F., Pietto, M. L., Segretin, M. S., & Lipina, S. J. (2021). Impact of an individualized and adaptive cognitive intervention on working memory, planning and fluid reasoning processing in preschoolers from poor homes. Child Neuropsychology, 28, 597–626. https://doi.org/10.1080/09297049.2021.1998406 
  • Howard, S. J., Vasseleu, E., Neilsen-Hewett, C., de Rosnay, M., Chan, A. Y. C., Johnstone, S., Mavilidi, M., Pass, F., & Melhuish, E. (2021). Executive function and self-regulation: Bi-directional longitudinal associations and prediction of early academic skills. Frontiers of Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.733328   
  • Howard, S. J., & Melhuish, E. C. (2017). An Early Years Toolbox (EYT) for assessing early executive function, language, self-regulation, and social development: Validity, reliability, and preliminary norms. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 35(3), 255–275. https://doi.org/10.1177/0734282916633009 
  • Howard, S. J., Powell, T., Vasseleu, E., Johnstone, S., & Melhuish, E. C. (2017). Enhancing preschoolers' executive functions through embedding cognitive activities in shared book reading. Educational Psychology Review, 29(1), 153–174. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-016-9364-4
  • Krupar, A., D’Sa, N., Westrope, C., & Johna, J. F. (2019). Developing a holistic assessment of children's learning in the context of forced displacement: Case study from Dadaab, Kenya. NORRAG Special Issue, 80–83. 
  • Lipina, S.J. (2023). The importance of conceiving human development as a complex system. The Lancet Global Health, 11(1), e10–e11. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2214-109X(22)00502-2 
  • McCoy, D. C. (2022). Building a model of cultural universality with specificity for global early childhood development. Child Development Perspectives, 16(1), 27–33. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12438 
  • McCoy, D. C., Hanno, E. C., Ponczek, V., Pinto, C., Fonseca, G., & Marchi, N. (2021). Um compasso para aprender: A randomized trial of a social‐emotional learning program in homicide‐affected communities in Brazil. Child Development, 92(5), 1951–1968. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13579 
  • McCoy, D. C., Koepp, A. E., Jones, S. M., Bodrova, E., Leong, D. J., & Deaver, A. H. (2022). An observational approach for exploring variability in young children's regulation‐related skills within classroom contexts. Developmental Science, 25(6), e13250. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.13250 
  • Miller-Cotto, D., & Byrnes, J. P. (2020). What's the best way to characterize the relationship between working memory and achievement?: An initial examination of competing theories. Journal of Educational Psychology, 112, 1074–1084. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000395 
  • Miller-Cotto, D., Smith, L.V., Wang, A.H., & Ribner, A.D. (2022). Changing the conversation: A culturally responsive perspective on executive functions, minoritized children and their families. Infant and Child Development, 31, e2286. https://doi.org/10.1002/icd.2286
  • Obradović, J., Finch, J. E., Connolly. C., Siyal, S. & Yousafzai, A. (2022). The unique relevance of executive functions and self-regulation behaviors for understanding early childhood experiences and preschoolers' outcomes in rural Pakistan. Developmental Science, 25, e13271 https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.13271 
  • Obradović, J., & Steyer, L. (2022). Direct assessment of elementary school students' executive functions and motivation in classroom settings. In S. Jones, N. Lesaux & S. Barnes (Eds.), Measuring Noncognitive Skills in School Settings: Assessments of Executive Function and Social-Emotional Competencies (pp. 11–39). New York NY: Guilford Press. 
  • Obradović, J. & Willoughby, M. (2019). Studying executive function skills in young children in low-and-middle-income countries: Current progress and future directions. Child Development Perspectives, 13, 227–234. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12349 
  • Pietto, M. L., Giovannetti, F., Segretin, M. S., Kamienkowski, J. E., & Lipina, S. J. (2023). Increased integration of functional connectivity after cognitive intervention in preschoolers from low socioeconomic status. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0001541 
  • Ribner, A.D., Ahmed, S., Miller-Cotto, D., & Ellis, A.E. (2023). The role of executive function in shaping the longitudinal stability of math achievement during early elementary grades. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 64, 84–93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2023.02.004
  • Soares, L., Thorell, L.B., Barbi, M., Crisci, G., Nutley, S. B., & Burén, J. (2023). The role of executive function deficits, delay aversion and emotion dysregulation in internet gaming disorder and social media disorder: Links to psychosocial outcomes. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 12(1), 94–104. 33. https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.2023.00007 
  • Sjöwall, D. & Thorell, L. B. (2019), A critical appraisal of the role of neuropsychological deficits in preschool ADHD. Child Neuropsychology, 25, 60–80. https://doi.org/10.1080/09297049.2018.1447096 
  • Sjöwall, D., Roth, L., Lindqvist, S., & Thorell, L.B. (2013). Multiple Deficits in ADHD: Executive Dysfunction, Delay Aversion, Reaction Time Variability and Emotional Deficits, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54, 619–627. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12006
  • Suntheimer, N. M., & Wolf, S. (2023). Duration of poverty and Ghanaian children's learning and self-regulation outcomes. Applied Developmental Science. Advance online publication.  https://doi.org/10.1080/10888691.2023.2225774 
  • Willoughby M.T., Camerota, M., King, K., Nduku, T., & Piper, B. (2023). Leveraging item-level accuracy and reaction time to address ceiling effects in the measurement of inhibitory control in preschool-aged children. Frontiers in Psychology – Quantitative Psychology and Measurement, 14, 861441. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.861441 
  • Willoughby, M.T., Piper, B., Oyanga, A., Merseth, K.A., (2019). Measuring executive function skills in young children in Kenya: Associations with school readiness. Developmental Science, 22(5), e12818. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12818 
  • Wolf, S., Aurino, E., Suntheimer, N. M., Avornyo, E., Tsinigo, E., Behrman, J. R., & Aber, J. L. (2022). Medium-term protective effects of quality early childhood education during the Covid-19 pandemic in Ghana. Child Development, 93, 1912–1920. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13824 
  • Wolf, S. (2019). Year 3 follow-up impacts of the 'Quality Preschool for Ghana' interventions on child development. Developmental Psychology, 55(12), 2587–2602. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000843