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Study: Preschool executive function skills to pay attention, manage time predict later math and reading achievement

Can skills learned in preschool predict how children will perform in elementary school?

A study by RTI International found that executive function skills—mental skills that help you get things done, manage time and pay attention—in 5 year olds can predict their math and reading performance in 5th grade. Moreover, the study found that children with low math ability but high executive function skills at age 5 can catch up with their peers by 5th grade. Executive function is controlled by the front lobe area of the brain.  

“These findings further document the importance of executive function skills in early childhood as a predictor of academic success,” said Michael Willoughby, PhD, co-author of the study and a Fellow in Education and Workforce Development at RTI International. “Efforts to improve executive function skills in early childhood may contribute to improved academic and occupational opportunities in later life.”

The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, involved nearly 1,300 children whose families have been participating in a prospective longitudinal study, the Family Life Project, since birth. The Family Life Project, funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development, is a national study on the development of children in rural communities.

Researchers examined executive function skills in children through activities such as memory games and inhibitory control tasks, including being asked to make the opposite sound of that associated with pictures of dogs and cats (meow when shown a picture of a dog).

The results of this study underscore the importance of thinking more broadly about which aspects of children’s early development may contribute to their longer term academic success. Efforts to improve executive function skills, including possibly through play or other activities, may help facilitate children’s long-term academic success.

The study had two notable strengths. First, the span of time (age 5 to 5th grade) was longer than many previous studies. Second, executive function skills made unique contributions to 5th grade achievement above and beyond other known predictors of academic achievement, such as early math and reading skills, language understanding, or family risk factors.