Rethinking executive functions: Commentary on “The contribution of executive function and social understanding to preschoolers’ letter and math skills” by M.R. Miller, U. Müller, G.F. Giesbrecht, J.I.M. Carpendale, and K.A. Kerns
“… difficulties in deciding which features are prototypical are exacerbated in the social sciences. In part, this is because so many important scientific constructs are still being discovered and developed, so that strong consensus about prototypical construct features is as much the exception as the rule.” (Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002, p. 68)
Executive function abilities would seem to hold an enduring fascination for researchers studying cognitive development in children. In many ways, this fascination perhaps reflects the idea that assessments of executive functions (EFs) come close to capturing the essence of self-regulation and higher order thinking as it emerges in early childhood; the development of the nascent ability to engage in purposeful, goal-directed, intentional behavior (Diamond & Lee, 2011). From this broad perspective, executive functions can be seen as leading indicators of complex cognition; as the cognitive skills – namely, working memory, the flexible directing and redirecting of attention, and the inhibition of prepotent or highly automatized responding – that enable the individual to reflect on past, present, and future experience and to formulate and act on motivated goals. In this strong statement of the role of executive functions in cognitive development, research on the construct can be seen to encompass not only the relatively well defined and inclusive set of cognitive skills important for organizing information but also the coordination of that information with respect to its motivational and emotional salience. Here executive functions can be seen to undergird cognition and essentially allow for what can generally be considered higher-order reasoning in children.