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Executive Functioning Skills
July 2018


What does the research say regarding executive functioning skills in early childhood learning? Which skills are most critical to young children's learning?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Ackerman' D. J.' & Friedman-Krauss' A. H. (2017). Preschoolers' executive function: Importance' contributors' research needs and assessment options (ETS Research Report Series No. RR-17-22). Princeton' NJ: Educational Testing Service.

From the Abstract:
"To provide the field with an overview of research conducted on this topic over the past 15 years' we review research on the traits and skills that fall under the broader umbrella of preschool EF and the role it plays in young children's developmental and academic outcomes. Also addressed are the child' environmental' activity-related' and curricular factors potentially impacting the development of EF and some EF-related topics for which additional research is needed. Finally' we provide practical and psychometric information regarding six examples of measures that focus on assessing preschoolers' EF skills."

Jacob' R.' & Parkinson' J. (2015). The potential for school-based interventions that target executive function to improve academic achievement: A review. Review of Educational Research' 85(4)' 512–552. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This article systematically reviews what is known empirically about the association between executive function and student achievement in both reading and math and critically assesses the evidence for a causal association between the two. Using meta-analytic techniques' the review finds that there is a moderate unconditional association between executive function and achievement that does not differ by executive function construct' age' or measurement type but finds no compelling evidence that a causal association between the two exists."

Jones' S. M.' Bailey' R.' Barnes' S. P.' & Partee' A. (2016). Executive Function Mapping Project: Untangling the terms and skills related to executive function and self-regulation in early childhood (OPRE Report No. 2016-88). Washington' DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families' Office of Planning' Research and Evaluation. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Based on a thorough review of the existing literature' this report outlines key differences and similarities among various executive function and other regulation-related skills in research. Those differences and similarities are then presented in a visual map to illustrate relationships among these skills. The purpose of the framework is to help stakeholders in early learning and child development consider and articulate research' program' and policy recommendations regarding executive function and other regulation-related skills with more accuracy and transparency."

Raver' C. C.' & Blair' C. (2016). Neuroscientific insights: Attention' working memory' and inhibitory control. Future of Children' 26(2)' 95–118.

From the Abstract:
"In this article' Cybele Raver and Clancy Blair explore a group of cognitive processes called executive function (EF)—including the flexible control of attention' the ability to hold information through working memory' and the ability to maintain inhibitory control … Through both behavioral examples and empirical evidence' Raver and Blair illustrate how children's cognitive development is intertwined with EF. They show how children's regulation of higher-order thinking is related to the regulation of emotion—in both top-down and bottom-up fashion—and they review research on early brain development' EF and emotion regulation' and children's academic performance. They also examine the efficacy of educational interventions that target EF and of integrated interventions that target both emotional and cognitive regulation."

Shaul' S.' & Schwartz' M. (2014). The role of the executive functions in school readiness among preschool-age children. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal' 27(4)' 749–768. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The aim of this study was to identify the specific contribution of executive functions to pre-academic skills (emergent literacy' phonological awareness and orthographic knowledge' and emergent mathematic knowledge) over and above cognitive and linguistic underpinning abilities such as naming' short-term memory and vocabulary. The study was designed to examine the following questions: (1) Are executive functions related to pre-academic skills in 'general' or are they related to 'specific' pre-academic skills? (2) Does the magnitude of the relationship between executive functions and pre-academics skills change with the progress in pre-school age?"

Zelazo' P. D.' Blair' C. B.' & Willoughby' M. T. (2017). Executive function: Implications for education (NCER 2017-2000). Jessup' MD: U.S. Department of Education' Institute of Education Sciences' National Center for Education Research.

From the Abstract:
"In this paper' the authors highlight some key findings on EF and focus on its relevance to education research and practice. Topics include the following: (1) An Introduction to Executive Function; (2) The Role That Executive Function Plays in Learning and Adaptation; (3) Assessment of Executive Function; (4) Developmental Change in Executive Function; (5) Individual Differences in Executive Function Development; (6) Malleability of Executive Function; and (6) Overall Summary' Directions for Future Research' and Implications for Educational Policy and Practice. References and a glossary are also included."

Other Resources

Harvard University' Center on the Developing Child. (2014). Enhancing and practicing executive function skills with children from infancy to adolescence. Retrieved from

From the Website:
"Executive function and self-regulation (EF/SR) skills provide critical supports for learning and development' and while we aren't born with these skills' we are born with the potential to develop them through interactions and practice. This 16-page guide (available for download' below)' describes a variety of activities and games that represent age-appropriate ways for adults to support and strengthen various components of EF/SR in children.

Each chapter of this guide contains activities suitable for a different age group' from infants to teenagers. The guide may be read in its entirety (which includes the introduction and references) or in discrete sections geared to specific age groups." Methods


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Executive function(ing) AND Skills' Component' Critical OR Important' Early childhood OR Preschool OR Prekindergarten

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.