Neurocognitive processes involved in self-control and goal-directed problem solving referred to as executive function (EF) play an instrumental role in learning and comprise a key protective system for resilience in high-risk children. Shortcomings in executive function are characteristic of children with a variety of disorders (e.g., ADHD, Conduct Disorder, autism) and are correlated with higher rates of incarceration, substance abuse, and lower academic performance.
EF and attention are our focus as there is compelling evidence from multiple fields that EF skills play an instrumental role in learning and comprise a key protective system for academic resilience in high-risk children. Individual differences in EF in childhood are predictors of important developmental outcomes, including academic achievement in school.
EF skills can be reliably measured in preschoolers and show predictive validity for math and reading skills in preschool and the early school grades and also predict cognitive outcomes in young adulthood. Indeed, impairments in EF are associated with a wide variety of disorders in childhood that interfere with learning and school success, including autism, as well as specific problem behaviors such as physical aggression and substance abuse.
Children with poor EF may have difficulty paying attention, following rules, learning from instruction, reading with high comprehension, planning ahead, delaying gratification, and ignoring distractions. They are likely to have trouble managing their emotions and likely cause behavior disruptions that interfere with learning and building positive relationships with teachers and classmates.
Disadvantaged children show greater risk for lower or delayed EF skill levels, and these early EF skill levels are related to their achievement after accounting for IQ. Indeed, teachers often report that the most important determinant of classroom success in kindergarten and early grades is the extent to which children can sit still, pay attention, and follow rules. On the other hand, this evidence also suggests that in the context of high risk, good EF skills facilitate academic resilience. Preschool
and other early childhood programs that promote academic success are also associated with, and even mediated by, concomitant improvements in EF.