The Importance of Executive Function

Long-term longitudinal studies suggesting that individual differences in executive function skills in childhood tend to be stable – forecasting later physical and mental health, wealth, and well-being, even after controlling for IQ. Its predictive range includes preschool to middle age.

EF has been proven to predict:

  • Socio-emotional Skills – theory of mind, emotional intelligence, social functioning
  • School Readiness – early math and reading ability2
  • Self-regulation – teachers say it is more important for young children to pay attention and self-regulate3
  • SAT Scores
  • Academic Achievement – grade retention,  school graduation, college graduation5
  • Socioeconomic Status – economic mobility as adults, savings, wealth, health6

Three Specific Studies

What is sometimes referred to as the Achievement or Opportunity Gap is a very complex social problem with many contributing factors, including things like rising income inequality, persistent racial discrimination, poor nutrition, truancy, and low access to high-quality preschool. Because EF skills are plastic and through training can be improved, supporting their development at all ages can potentially start to minimize this disparity.

Family Income and Academic Performance

A gap in academic performance has been found as early as preschool, other studies suggest the gaps start even earlier. Decades’ worth of data shows that children in lower-income families tend to have lower educational achievement than their higher-income peers. One key idea is that these children are already behind in foundation skills when they reach kindergarten — including Executive Function skills.

Socioeconomic Status (SES) and Language Development

Over 20 years ago, Drs. Betty Hart and Todd Risley reported significant differences in the amount of language input that young children hear based on their family’s SES. Coined “the 30-million-word gap,” the differences in language input were mirrored in the data describing the child’s language output and vocabulary knowledge. This gap was apparent in children as young as 3 years old. Those early abilities, or lack thereof, were then tied to predict children’s later skills, including vocabulary and reading comprehension. Children from the bottom 20% of US income levels score a full grade level behind those in the top 20% on early tests of math and reading (Duncan & Magnuson, 2012).


Family Income and College Degrees

The Achievement Gap does NOT disappear as children get older. Lower-income students are much less likely to finish high school or graduate from college (Bailey & Dynarski, 2011).

When we look at lower-income families (green and purple lines) compared to higher-income families (red and blue lines) we can see a clear gap in Bachelor’s degree attainment, especially as time goes on, with the most recent data showing very large gaps.

From the data in all three of these studies, we see that without strong EF skills, the odds of being academically successful and economically mobile decreases tremendously.

*If you’re looking to learn more about Executive Function and the brain, check out our course EF 201: Understanding Executive Function