June 6, 2017

New Report Sheds Light on Factors Impacting Preschoolers Developmental and Academic Outcomes

PRINCETON, N.J., June 6, 2017 /PRNewswire-HISPANIC PR WIRE/ -- While there may be no consensus among educators as to how to help 3-5 year-olds develop their attention, working memory, and self-control skills, a new report from Educational Testing Service (ETS) that synthesizes 15 years of studies in this area is a welcome resource for early childhood researchers and practitioners in this effort.

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These skills fall under the broader category of Executive Functioning (EF), and are key to young children's developmental and academic outcomes. The report, "Preschoolers' Executive Function: Importance, Contributors, Research Needs and Assessment Options," written by ETS researcher Debra J. Ackerman of ETS's Early Childhood Research & Assessment Center and Allison H. Friedman-Krauss, Assistant Research Professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research, was published by ETS's Policy Information Center.

The early education field is increasingly recognizing the key role played by young children's EF skills, especially given the continued policy emphasis on expanding at-risk children's access to publicly-funded prekindergarten, the authors write. In addition, attention is being paid to how EF might be validly and reliably assessed in 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. The report provides a broad overview of this body of research.

"Executive functioning applies to both adults and children and refers to an interrelated and complex set of high-level cognitive and behavioral processes," explains Ackerman. "In adults this means the ability to anticipate and initiate actions, direct and sustain one's short-term attention, inhibit inappropriate behavior, problem solve and incorporate relevant feedback. In children it includes the capacity to resist distraction, shift and maintain focus on the teacher or task at hand, and remember and follow directions such as "raise your hand" and "wait your turn."

Early education researchers have been particularly interested in the visible effects of young children's EF in terms of their behavioral regulation and learning-related skills. Ackerman and Friedman-Krauss cite a growing research base both in the United States and internationally, and including children from both low- and high-income families, which has demonstrated the correlational relationship between inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, and/or working memory and academic skills. Studies show this translates into improved literacy, math and school readiness.

Their report also reviews factors that affect the development of EF in young children including individual child characteristics, environmental factors, and exposure to specific activities and early learning curricula. "Although development of EF continues into the adolescent and early adult years, a substantial research base also suggests that the early childhood period may represent the most dramatic growth in EF skills," adds Friedman-Krauss. "Not surprisingly, various prenatal and child health issues such as low birth weight and premature birth also contribute to lower EF skills in preschoolers."

Other research covered in the report looked at factors including social interaction with parents or caregivers, giving children choices and strategies for thinking about their behavior versus direct commands, the impact of growing up in poverty, or experiencing abuse, neglect or violence as well as less access to educational resources. The authors also review research on the effects of television viewing and other types of media, physical activity during the day, and spontaneous pretend play. 

Ackerman and Friedman-Krauss also highlight six preschool-relevant examples of assessment approaches to measuring children's EF skills. These examples include:

  • Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders Task ? a 5- to 7-minute game that asks a child to touch his or her head versus toes as well as his or her knees versus shoulders.
  • Minnesota Executive Function Scale ? a touchscreen computer-based game in which children are asked to sort pictures first by color and then by shape.
  • Cognition Battery of the NIH Toolbox for Assessment of Neurological and Behavioral Function ? Another computer-based program requiring children to pay attention to the direction in which a stimulus fish is pointing while ignoring the direction of the surround fish, as well as sort pictures by color and shape.
  • Executive Function Touch ? 3- to 7-minute computer-delivered tasks including Working Memory Span, Silly Sounds Stroop, Something's the Same, Animal Go/No Go, and others.
  • Preschool Self-Regulation ? nine performance-based tasks, four of which include Balance Beam, Pencil Tap, Toy Sort and Toy Wrap.
  • Child Behavior Rating Scale ? a paper-based measure of 15 items, the first 10 of which focus on self-regulation in the classroom. It is designed to capture teachers' perspectives of children's exhibited behavior with adults and other children in a classroom setting.

"In this report, we reviewed research on the traits and skills that fall under the broader umbrella of preschool EF. Although EF can be characterized in many ways, the research reviewed here has demonstrated that its interdependent aspects are critical for supporting young children's developmental and academic outcomes," Ackerman says. "More specifically, EF is not only important for successfully completing everyday tasks but it is a necessary skill for language, literacy, and mathematics learning."

"In turn, our review suggests that it is important for both policy makers and early education stakeholders to be mindful of the child and environmental factors that play a role in the development of EF. Yet there still is much to learn about the specific activities, interventions, curricula, and instructional approaches that might best promote preschoolers EF," Friedman-Krauss concludes.

Copies of the report are available from Wiley Online Library at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ets2.12148/epdf

About ETS
At ETS, we advance quality and equity in education for people worldwide by creating assessments based on rigorous research. ETS serves individuals, educational institutions and government agencies by providing customized solutions for teacher certification, English language learning, and elementary, secondary and postsecondary education, and by conducting education research, analysis and policy studies. Founded as a nonprofit in 1947, ETS develops, administers and scores more than 50 million tests annually ? including the TOEFL® and TOEIC® tests, the GRE® tests and the Praxis Series® assessments ? in more than 180 countries, at over 9,000 locations worldwide. www.ets.org

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SOURCE Educational Testing Service