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How are Executive Function and Learning Connected?

This week: New Executive Function Science 

This week we are taking a look at a 2021 study from the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology that explores the relationship between differences in executive function (EF) skills, and how those differences affect learning different kinds of material. The study is called “Individual differences in executive function and learning: The role of knowledge type and conflict with prior knowledge” by Amanda Grinnel and Stephanie Carlson at the University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development.  

What is This Study About?

In this study the authors wanted to find out if differences in executive function (EF) skills had an impact on learning different kinds of facts and concepts. They created an experiment where they measured the working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control of 4-year-olds, then asked them to learn different facts and concepts.

What did this Study Find?

The experiment (involving 61 4-year-old subjects) showed that individual differences in EF skills did predict their overall learning, after controlling for prior knowledge, age, and verbal IQ. Not only that, the experiment also showed that two EF skills – working memory and cognitive flexibility – predicted children’s learning of concepts, while inhibitory control skills predicted the learning of facts. The study also found that differences in EF were especially important when children learned things that conflicted with something they had learned before (their ‘prior knowledge’). 

Deep Dive: Facts v Concepts

This study suggests the possibility that differences in EF contribute to some kids being better at learning facts, while others may have an easier time learning concepts. What do the authors mean by “facts” and “concepts”? Here are some examples: 

  • Fact: 1 + 1 = 2
  • Concept: Adding numbers together leads to higher numbers; subtracting numbers leads to lower numbers.
  • Fact: The letter ‘T’ is generally pronounced like ‘tah’.
  • Concept: In addition to how certain letters and words are pronounced, there are different types of punctuation (e.g., commas, question marks) that determine how a book should be read.
  • Fact: Water can be frozen.
  • Concept: Temperature can have a range of effects on matter, such as melting and freezing

Key Takeaways for Families:


EF Predicts Academic Achievement:

  • Previous research indicates that stronger EF skills mean better academic performance in math, literacy, and science.

EF Skills and Learning Concepts:

  • The EF skills of working memory (the ability to absorb new information without losing track of what we are doing) and cognitive flexibility (the ability to adapt thinking to correct misunderstandings or understand details) are necessary for children to learn concepts.

EF Skills and Learning Facts:

  • The EF skill of inhibitory control (being able to ignore distractions and pay attention) helps children learn facts.

EF and Learning Contradictory Information:

  • Cognitive flexibility is especially important when new concepts and facts contradict what children previously understood. For example, when children first learn about fish they may think that whales are fish too, especially since they look a lot like fish. However, as they learn more about aquatic mammals, they will use existing information about fish, while thinking flexibly about the features of this new category of aquatic mammals that LOOK like fish but are not.


Note: Children need to develop working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control to learn successfully. Parents and caregivers can support young children in developing these EF skills through enriching play and conversation.


Actionable Steps for Parents:

Use Story Time to Develop EF Skills:

  • Encourageyour child to ask questions and answer questions about the story as you read. You can ask questions related to the facts of the story, (what did the hungry caterpillar do next?) as well as the concepts (why was the caterpillar eating so much?). Encourage cognitive flexibility by asking your child to imagine how the story would change if a character did something different.
  • Try: Beyond the Book: Four Mini Executive Function games for Story Time and let your child exercise their flexible thinking and working memory!
  • Remember: Encouraging your child to pay attention to particular parts of the story or look for specific things in the pictures can also help with inhibitory control.

Practice Handling Conflicts with Prior Knowledge:


  • Try: games or activities where your child has to incorporate new information into their thinking. Games and imaginative play can be helpful for working on cognitive flexibility and working memory.
  • Play: Let’s Sort It Out! and give your child an opportunity to practice facts and concepts as well as EF skills.
  • Remember: Anytime you encourage your child to explain their thinking or make an independent decision, you’re helping them develop EF skills. Simple questions like “What animal is making that sound we hear?” or “How did you make your block tower?” can help your child practice facts and concepts.



Grenell, A., & Carlson, S. M. (2021). Individual differences in executive function and learning: The role of knowledge type and conflict with prior knowledge. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 206, Article 105079. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2020.105079.

Check out the study for more information!

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