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Tracking EF Skills in Young Children: Development from 3.5-7 Years and Future Academic Performance

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

In the following study, learn how developing your child’s EF skills now will benefit them later in school.

Before We Begin:

This article explains the study “Modeling executive function across early childhood: Longitudinal invariance, development from 3.5 to 7 years and later academic performance” Castellanos-Ryan, N., Parent, S., Chaput-Langlois, S., Rioux, C., Jacques, S., Simard, C., Tremblay, R. E., Séguin, J. R., & Zelazo, P. D. (2023). Cognitive Development, 68, 101365. The focus of this study is on understanding how executive functions (EF) in children from 3.5 to 7 years old develop, and what effect this has on long-term academic achievement.

Key Takeaways

Researchers wanted to find out how EF skills develop throughout a person’s early life. To do this, they examined the progression of EF skills by conducting a set of four assessments on 465 children. They gave the first test when the children were 3.5 years old, and then tested them periodically until they reached 7 years of age. The tests measured the children’s cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control. 

Let’s take a look at what the test results show us about EF skill development.

The study found that . . .

  • A child’s EF skills increase rapidly between the ages of 3.5 and 6 years.
  • EF skills do not grow as much between 6 and 7 years.
  • at 3.5 years old, EF abilities vary, indicating that children develop these skills at different rates.
  • EF skills tend to develop sequentially, starting with working memory, followed by inhibitory control, and then cognitive flexibility.
  • Understanding EF development is crucial for supporting children experiencing academic challenges.
  • The level of a child’s EF skills at age 3.5 years old, and their growth over time predicts their academic performance at ages 9 and 17, suggesting that strengthening EF skills in early childhood can have long-term benefits for academic achievement.

Actionable Steps for Parents

This study supports the idea that EF skills start developing early in your child’s life. It also explains that your child’s EF skills play a big part in their long-term success in school. Your child may first develop their working memory, followed by inhibitory control and then cognitive flexibility. Luckily, there are great ways for you to build all of these skills at home!

  • Assess: This study found that it is important to identify any lacking EF skills early, so they can be strengthened. You can do this at home! 
  • Play: Once you measure their skills, you can play games or do activities to work on any skills that seem to be lacking or just to strengthen the skills they already have. 
  • Play: Games like head, shoulders, knees, and toes provide a great chance to take a break from screens and can teach children about coordination. These are excellent opportunities to work on working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility skills.
  • Support: As your child works hard to strengthen their EF skills, be sure to praise your child’s appropriate behavior. Also, by building a positive relationship with your child, you can use rules and discipline as an opportunity to teach new skills.

Conclusion

Your child’s EF skills grow and develop beginning in early childhood. These skills can serve as a predictor for your child’s future academic success. It is important to build and strengthen your child’s EF skills. Staying up to date with resources that you can use to help your child at home will lead to a successful future for you and your child!

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