Early Childhood Executive Function, Literacy, and Mathematics: Direction of Effects and Domain-Specificity Across the Transition to School


Dieuwer ten Braak


Across the lifespan, early childhood is a time of tremendous and rapid learning. The executive functions (ability to inhibit responses, update working memory, and flexibly shift attention) and early academic skills (literacy and mathematics) that children acquire before school entry are strong, if not the strongest, predictors of their later academic achievement and educational outcomes. The central role of early childhood academic and executive skills for children’s prospects makes it vital to understand how these skills relate, especially during the transition from early childhood education to formal schooling. Research on early skill development may provide valuable information on where difficulties may arise and where to put in resources.

Despite an increasing body of literature showing that good executive function in children is positively related to academic skills, previous research has limitations that restrict our understanding of the specific nature of these associations. Specifically, little is known about the direction of effects and possible domain-specific relations. That is, is the relation between executive function and early literacy and mathematics unidirectional or mutually interdependent with certain academic skills also predicting executive function? And, do certain components of executive function differently predict early literacy and mathematics? Early literacy and mathematics are often studied in isolation, despite clear knowledge that these two areas are highly related. How executive function relates to these skills when taking into account their interrelations is less known. Moreover, contextual factors, such as the child’s educational environment, may affect the interrelations between executive function and academic skills. The majority of studies have investigated associations in school-readiness early childhood education contexts. Few studies have investigated how these skills relate in children in a play-based early childhood education context, such as Norway.

The main aim of this dissertation was to get a better understanding of the interrelations between executive function (including self-regulation, attentional-, and behavioral control), early literacy, and mathematics when children (ages 5-7) make the transition from early childhood education (kindergarten) to formal education (first grade).

The dissertation includes three studies. Study I provides the basis for Study II with a psychometric evaluation of the early mathematics assessment used in that study. Study II investigates the direction of effects between self-regulation and early literacy and mathematics. Study III assesses the pathways from two aspects of executive function (attentional and behavioral control) to early literacy and mathematics. Below follows a brief description of each study.

Study I
In Study I, the psychometric properties of an early mathematics assessment (ABMT; Ani Banani Math Test) for kindergarten children were investigated in three samples (N = 243, N = 691, and N = 1282). It was expected that the ABMT showed a consistent factor structure across different samples, that items functioned similarly across age, sex, and socioeconomic status, and that it was more strongly related to other math assessments than to measures of executive function or literacy. The results showed that a one-factor structure was the most representative and reliable structure for the ABMT and that it functioned similarly across age and socioeconomic status. Two items showed signs of differential item functioning in favor of boys and one in favor of girls. Furthermore, the analyses provided evidence that the ABMT has concurrent, predictive, and discriminant validity. This indicates that although scores on the ABMT are related to executive function and literacy, it is most strongly an indicator of children’s early mathematics.

Study II
Using cross-lagged panel models, in Study II the direction of relations between self-regulation and mathematics, expressive vocabulary, and phonological awareness were investigated in children (N = 243) making the transition from a play-based kindergarten context to formal schooling in first grade. Bidirectional relations were expected between self- regulation and mathematics and between self-regulation and expressive vocabulary. Self-regulation was expected to predict phonological awareness, but not the reverse. These expectations were partly confirmed; bidirectionality was found for mathematics, but not for expressive vocabulary. While expressive vocabulary did predict self- regulation, self-regulation was not a robust predictor of phonological awareness. These results are in line with the notion that there is a particularly robust bidirectional connection between self-regulation and mathematics and that language is important for the acquisition of self- regulation.

Study III
Because early literacy and mathematics may require different cognitive and behavioral abilities, specific aspects of executive function may be differentially related to these academic skills. Using structural equation modeling, in Study III (N = 90), it was investigated how two components of executive function (attentional and behavioral control) predicted phonological awareness and early number sense in kindergarten and word reading and mathematics in first grade. Attentional control was expected to be a specific predictor for word reading, while both components were expected to predict mathematics. Results indicated that attentional control predicted word reading and that this relation went via phonological awareness. Behavioral control did not predict word reading but did so indirectly through phonological awareness. Attentional control did not predict mathematics in first grade. Behavioral control, on the contrary, showed a direct and robust relation to later mathematics. These differential domain-specific relations suggest that the development of early literacy and mathematics may differentially rely on attentional and behavioral control processes.

Author Biography

Dieuwer ten Braak

Associate Professor
Faculty of Arts and Education, Kunnskapssenter for utdanning 
E-mail: dieuwer.t.braak@uis.no

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September 5, 2020