Evidence suggests there is a positive correlation between strong executive function (EF) skills and academic growth over time. Programs that integrate EF practice into early childhood curriculum may see significant improvements in learning and social development. Why does building EF skills appear to improve academic outcomes? It seems obvious: if stronger EF skills predict better outcomes, and EF practice strengthens EF skills, then shouldn’t EF practice improve outcomes? Logically, it makes sense. But to really understand which EF practices can improve outcomes, and under what circumstances, you need to study the question scientifically.
I recently spoke to somebody who has looked at this very question from a scientific perspective. In fact, she is co-author of one of the first experimental studies of the connection between EF practice and improved mathematics performance in early childhood, that includes all four training conditions necessary to get to the bottom of this question. The results of her and her co-authors’ research are exciting for early childhood educators because they support the hypothesis that practicing EF not only increases EF skills, but can also improve mathematics skills in children.
Q: How Did You First Become Interested in Executive Function?
Dr. Ernst: I first developed an interest in research and developmental science as an undergraduate. During my freshman year, I took a developmental psychology course with Dr. Elizabeth Lemerise, who oversaw The Social Development Laboratory, which studied social and emotional development in children. I joined her lab that semester and eventually expanded my research from looking at the role preschool teachers play in children’s learning to looking at the role executive function plays in student learning. Once I discovered how critical executive function was to the learning process, I became interested in learning how supporting children’s executive function can also help support their learning in math and science.
Q: How Has Your Research Evolved?
Dr. Ernst: Today, my research integrates my work in early childhood education, executive function and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) achievement and learning. I recently completed my doctoral training at the University of Minnesota, where for the past five years, I worked with Dr. Stephanie Carlson, a distinguished McKnight University professor at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota, and advisor to Reflection Sciences. I’ve also worked closely with Dr. Michele Mazzocco, director of the Mazzocco Math and Numeracy Lab at the University of Minnesota. I’m fascinated by how executive function intersects with STEM learning, early math and numeracy development and how all of these can work together in early childhood classrooms. Along with lead author, Dr. Emily Prager, a school psychologist in Minneapolis Public Schools; Dr. Carlson, Dr. Mazzocco and I published a paper in the August 2023 issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology that looks at the role executive function plays in preschool students’ mathematics development. Soon, I will begin a postdoctoral position at Purdue University, where I’ll continue exploring executive function and its relationship to early learning.
Q. Can You Tell Us About Your Paper and How It Relates to Early Childhood Education?
Dr. Ernst: Other studies have shown that there is a positive relationship between executive functioning skills and mathematics skills across a wide age range, but we have yet to fully understand how learning these skills impacts preschool students’ mathematics growth and learning. In our paper, “Executive Function and Mathematics in Preschool Children: Training and Transfer Effects,” we discuss how executive function interventions improved numeracy skills in a group of 104 preschool children. We tested four different scenarios to determine which interventions were most effective in improving executive function, mathematics and number skills in young children.
Q: Why Was This Study Needed? What Knowledge Gap Does it Fill?
Dr. Ernst: One of our main reasons for conducting this study was to see which interventions were effective for improving executive function and mathematics. For example, if we were able to show certain activities improve preschoolers’ executive function skills and numeracy skills, this could be a promising direction to go in for future research. This study helped us learn more about the causal connection between executive function and math. We were able to make cause-and-effect claims between the two because we designed it as an experiment. In our study, each of the preschool students completed three brief training sessions with an examiner, along with assessments that measured their executive function, math and number skills. We were able to measure their executive function using Reflection Sciences’ Minnesota Executive Scaler (MEFS) assessment, a computer-adaptive tool that can accurately assess executive function in children as young as two years old. Then, we randomly assigned each child to one of four conditions: reflection-based executive function training, number training, combined executive function and number training or a control group. (In the control group, children were read stories.) We found that the reflection-based executive function training improved both executive function and number skills. We also found that the combined executive function and number training improved number and general mathematics skills—but it did not improve executive function skills. Other interesting findings: Children in the executive function training group with lower pre-test executive functioning skills had greater executive functioning gains. Additionally, children in the executive function training group in lower socioeconomic status households achieved greater gains in numerical skills following training.
Q: What is the Key Takeaway from This Study for Teachers and/or Parents?
Dr. Ernst: Our research suggests that intentionally including opportunities for children to use their executive function skills may be important for developing both executive function and number skills. We know from other research studies that engaging with numbers and math is also important for developing number and math skills.
Q: Based On Your Overall Knowledge of Executive Function Research in Education, What is the Connection Between Executive Function and Learning? How Does Executive Function Impact Kindergarten Readiness?
Dr. Ernst: Individuals use their executive function skills as they are learning and while they are learning. We know that learning is effortful and requires paying attention, ignoring distractions and staying focused. To learn amidst other distractions, children and adults rely on their executive function skills. We also use our executive function skills while we are participating in academic activities that require effort. For example, if a young child, who is still learning how to count, is trying to count out a set of six tokens, they might use their executive function skills to keep their goal number in mind, stop when they reach their target number and count each token only one time. Children also call upon their executive function skills to engage in social and emotional development and other non-academic elements of kindergarten readiness, such as taking turns, for example. Our research shows that executive function training improved executive function skills, which is exciting; but it also showed that executive function training improved numerical skills. We learned that practicing executive function skills intentionally can have spillover effects.
Q: What is the Next Step in This Research?
Dr. Ernst: We now need to determine whether the effects of these short-term interventions can be sustained over time, and if so, how. The ultimate goal would be to continue studying this topic and scale it up a little each time. We could involve teachers at different steps and create a model that could be integrated into daily teaching practices.