Provision of Choice is Key to Executive Function Development in Toddlers

It is clear that early executive function (EF) skills are important for many outcomes including social competence, emotion regulation, academic achievement, and school readiness (Allan et al., 2014, McClelland et al., 2013; Willoughby et al., 2017). We have seen remarkable growth in the number of investigations looking at how we can better support children’s emerging EF skills in the last several years. More recently, the role of parents in promoting positive EF skill development has been a focus for many EF researchers. This is because early in development, children spend much of their time with their parents and other primary caregivers. Theories of social cognitive development place special emphasis on these early social interactions and how they could facilitate cognitive development including EF skills.

Researchers have identified a multitude of parent behaviors that may help support EF skill development in young children. These include behaviors like parental warmth, sensitivity, and cognitive stimulation (Fay-Stammbach et al., 2014). 

However, research in this area has focused on what is known as autonomy-supportive parenting (Matte-Gagne et al., 2015; Distefano et al., 2018; Meuwissen et al., 2019). Parents who are autonomy-supportive support their children in ways that allow them to feel in control of their actions. These parent behaviors include scaffolding assistance according to the child’s needs, encouraging the child by using positive verbalizations, and providing the child with age-appropriate choices when possible. Findings from these studies reveal that when parents endorse and show higher levels of these autonomy-supportive behaviors, their children tend to have better EF skills.

What is not clear is whether different aspects of autonomy-supportive parenting are more important in facilitating EF skill development in early childhood. In a recent study, we examined how different autonomy-supportive behaviors predicted EF skills in preschoolers (Castelo et al., 2022). To do this, we asked children aged 3-5 years old and their parents to work on several puzzles together for ten minutes. The sets of puzzles were slightly too difficult for the child to complete on their own, such that some adult assistance would be necessary. These parent-child interactions were recorded and were later coded for four types of autonomy-supportive behavior based on a well-established coding scheme (Whipple et al., 2011). 

These include the extent to which: 1) the parent adapted their assistance according to the child’s needs; 2) the parent used a positive tone of voice to communicate to the child that they were there to help; 3) the parent recognizes and takes the child’s perspective and shows flexibility; 4) the parent provides the child with opportunities to make choices on their own and follows their pace. 

Children also completed several tasks that measures EF skills including the Bear/Dragon task, Delay of Gratification, Gift Delay, Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders, Peg-Tapping, NIH Toolbox Flanker, and Minnesota Executive Function Scale. Scores from each of these tasks were combined into a composite score.

Overall, we found that each autonomy support subscales were positively associated with children’s EF skill performance. When we pitted each autonomy support subscale against one another, we found that the subscale related to offering children choices predicted child EF above and beyond the other autonomy support behaviors. To put it simply, there seems to be something unique about parent provision of choice in how it supports EF skill development in early childhood. This finding aligns well with what we know about EF and how it develops in children. EF is the conscious control of behavior that we use to self-regulate, resist temptations, and perform goal-driven actions. To successfully do all these things, children would need to have developed some level of control over their actions and believe that their actions have an impact on their environments. Parents allowing children to make their own conscious choices creates opportunities for children to develop their sense of control. Thus, children’s experience with choice may be facilitating the development of their EF skills through improved sense of control. 


Our study examined provision of choice in the context of autonomy-supportive parenting, but questions remain surrounding whether children’s actual behaviors regarding choice predicts EF skills. We are currently conducting studies that focus directly on children’s preference for choice and whether behaviors regarding choice are associated with emerging EF skills. This line of research will help us better understand how children make decisions in the presence of choice and determine what types of constraints exist with their behaviors. Importantly, this will contribute to the development of age-appropriate guidelines related to how much choice to provide young children to optimally support their EF skills as well as their overall well-being.


About the Author:

Romulus Castelo is a 3rd year Ph.D. student in Developmental Psychology at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota. His research examines how parenting, specifically autonomy-supportive parenting, can help facilitate executive function (EF) skills in children. With Dr. Stephanie Carlson, he is currently investigating the role of choice in EF development in toddlers through a series of experimental studies.