Kindergarten students learning with teacher
Published on: Nov 19, 2018

Identifying factors that predict academic difficulties during elementary school should help inform efforts to children who may be at risk. New Penn State research suggests that children’s executive functions may be a particularly important risk factor for such difficulties.

Preliminary findings from a three-year National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project, recently published in Child Development, show that executive functions in kindergarten predict children’s mathematics, reading, and science achievement as well as their classroom behavior in second grade. A second study from the project, recently published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, finds that deficits in executive functions increase the risk for experiencing repeated academic difficulties in mathematics, reading, and science from first to third grade. The NSF is also highlighting the findings their Discovery News.

According to principal investigator Paul Morgan, Harry and Marion Eberly Fellow, professor of education and demography, and director of the Center for Educational Disparities, executive functions (EF) are a set of cognitive processes that facilitate children’s abilities to plan, problem solve, and control impulses. “Our research shows that deficits in EF increase the risk for repeated academic difficulties over time, suggesting these deficits may be an especially promising target of early intervention efforts.”

This research is important because few previous studies have examined risk factors for repeated academic difficulties during elementary school. “Of the few available longitudinal studies, most have focused on identifying risk factors for repeated difficulties in mathematics. Risk factors for repeated difficulties in reading and science have been less clear, as has which specific types of EF are the strongest risk factors for such difficulties,” said Morgan. Also unclear is whether the risks attributable to deficits in EF can be explained by other factors.

For the first study, Morgan and his research team analyzed a nationally representative and longitudinal cohort of about 9,000 kindergarten children who were followed until the end of second grade.

The investigators found that kindergarten children with better EF displayed greater reading, mathematics, and science achievement, as well as fewer externalizing and internalizing problem behaviors by second grade, even after controlling for prior achievement and behavior as well as socio-demographic factors such as gender, age, disability status and family economic status.

In the second study, researchers once again analyzed data from about 11,000 children who were followed from kindergarten to third grade.  “The first study looked at the relation between children’s EF and academics and behavior more generally, while the second study focused more on children at risk,” Morgan explained. “Specifically, in the second study we examined whether deficits in EF functioned as a type of ‘bottleneck’ for learning, as suggested by the increased risk for repeated academic difficulties for children with EF deficits and based on these observational data.”

Despite controls for prior achievement including across several domains as well as socio-demographic characteristics, having deficits in EF by kindergarten consistently increased the risk that children will experience repeated academic difficulties across elementary school.

The risks for working memory deficits, or difficulties using and manipulating new information, were especially strong. The researchers found that the odds that kindergarten children with working memory deficits experienced repeated academic difficulties were about three to five times greater than children without working memory deficits, controlling for whether children had other types of deficits in EF, prior achievement and oral language ability, and socio-demographic characteristics including the family’s economic resources.

“Our study also provides suggestive evidence that repeated academic difficulties may be the result of underlying cognitive impairments, not just a lack of basic skills acquisition,” said Morgan.

The findings could help inform the design and delivery of experimentally evaluated interventions, particularly for those who are at risk for academic difficulties during elementary school. “Children who are already experiencing repeated academic difficulties during elementary school are likely to continue to struggle in school as they age. We should be doing all we can to assist these children early on in their school careers,” Morgan said.

Other researchers on the project include George Farkas, distinguished professor of education at the University of California, Irvine; Yoonkyung Oh, University of Texas, Health Science Center at Houston; and Marianne Hillemeier, professor of health policy and administration and demography; Wik Hung Pun; Yangyang Wang; and Steve Maczuga, all from Penn State.

The Center for Educational Disparities Research was jointly established by Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute and the College of Education in order to close the opportunity gaps faced by at-risk children including those with or at risk for disabilities, racial, ethnic, or language minorities, and/or who are from low-income families.