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Preschool Executive Function and Adult Outcomes: A Developmental Cascade Model

Little Gains, Big Gains: How Can Nurturing Executive Function Skills in Preschoolers Impact Their Adult Years?


This article is part of our weekly series Executive Function Tips for Families.

Before We Begin:
This article explains the findings of the study “Preschool Executive Function and Adult Outcomes: A Developmental Cascade Model” Ahmed et. al, Developmental Psychology, 57(12), 2234-2249.

Executive Function (EF) is a term that encompasses a broad set of cognitive skills that enable individuals to purposefully guide their thoughts and actions to achieve specific goals. These skills play a fundamental role in filtering distractions, controlling impulses, managing information, and maintaining cognitive control. While the concept of EF is multifaceted and widely studied, this study delves into a crucial aspect: the long-term impact of EF during early childhood on various adult outcomes.

What is Executive Function (EF) and Why Should We Care About It?

EF represents a set of higher-order cognitive abilities that are integral to the functioning of the human mind. These abilities are critical for controlling attention, managing information, and regulating impulses to achieve specific goals. EF has been associated with a broad range of outcomes that significantly shape an individual’s life. These outcomes encompass social functioning, mental health, substance use, academic success, and more. The wide-ranging influence of EF underscores its relevance in understanding human behavior and development.

Let’s Break Down EF into Its Core Components

EF is not a monolithic concept but comprises three core cognitive processes:


1. Inhibition: This process involves the suppression of impulses or the ability to resist immediate temptations. Inhibition allows individuals to maintain focus on their long-term goals and avoid distractions. For example, inhibition allows a preschooler to resist the temptation to take a cookie from a fellow classmate without first asking.  


2. Working Memory: Working memory is responsible for manipulating and recalling information. It is essential for tasks that require mental organization, planning, and strategizing. For example, working memory allows a preschooler to repeat words back to a teacher during a vocabulary lesson in which the teacher reads words aloud. 

3. Cognitive Flexibility: Cognitive flexibility is the capacity to adapt to changing demands, switch between tasks, and modify one’s cognitive approach in response to varying circumstances. For example, cognitive flexibility allows a preschooler to adjust their behavior on-the-fly during games like Red Light, Green Light.

What Does the Study Tell Us?

The study uncovered major gains from well-developed preschool EF skills in the following areas:


Educational Attainment: One of the most striking findings is the strong link between preschool EF and higher educational attainment in adulthood. The researchers found a significant correlation (r = .36) between EF measured during preschool and educational attainment in adulthood. In other words, higher EF ability in early childhood was found to be related to higher educational attainment later in life.This underscores the importance of early EF skills in achieving academic success. Preschoolers with well-developed EF skills are better equipped to excel in their educational journey.


Impulse Control: Likewise, there was a significant relationship between early EF and impulse control in adults (r = .11); higher EF ability in children was related to higher impulse control in adults.The ability to regulate impulses and make well-considered decisions is fostered in early childhood, and it has lasting effects on adult self-control.


General Health: Surprisingly, unlike educational attainment and impulse control, preschool EF does not directly predict general health in adulthood. This suggests that cognitive EF might differ from behavioral self-control in its impact on health outcomes. The study’s findings indicate a more complex relationship between cognitive EF skills and health.


Actionable Steps for Parents

Understanding the importance of EF and its long-term impact on adult outcomes can empower caregivers to take proactive steps to support children’s EF development. Here are some actionable recommendations for parents:


1. Stimulate EF Development: Encourage activities that promote EF development in your child, such as engaging in games that involve problem-solving, memory exercises, and tasks requiring impulse control (e.g., waiting for their turn).


2. Support Academic Success: Create an environment conducive to learning and provide structure to help your child develop EF skills such as having a daily reading time with your child. 


3. Teach Impulse Control: Help your child learn to manage impulses and make thoughtful decisions. Promote self-control through strategies such as counting to ten before reacting and discussing the consequences of impulsive actions.


4. Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle: While preschool EF may not directly predict general health in adulthood, fostering a healthy lifestyle from an early age is crucial. Encourage balanced nutrition, regular physical activity, and proper sleep to support overall well-being.


5. Assess Development Regularly: Keep track of your child’s EF development over time. If you notice any difficulties, consult with professionals who can provide guidance and interventions to support EF growth.


This study sheds light on the lasting impact of early EF development on various adult outcomes. It underscores the importance of fostering EF skills in early childhood and offers valuable insights for parents to support children’s EF development and set them on a positive trajectory for their future. By nurturing these essential cognitive skills, parents can empower their children to achieve their goals and lead fulfilling lives.

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