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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

January 2019


What research on executive function interventions in grades K–12 has been published between 2014 and 2019, particularly meta-analyses and systematic literature reviews?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for meta-analyses, systematic literature reviews, and other research on executive function interventions used in grades K–12. In particular, we focused on research published between 2014 and 2019. The ERIC online library defines “executive function” as “cognitive processes involved in complex planning, goal setting, and organizational thinking and behavior.” Resources related to interventions based on physical exercise and mindfulness were excluded. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Baron, A., Evangelou, M., Malmberg, L.-E., & Melendez-Torres, G. J. (2017). The Tools of the Mind curriculum for improving self-regulation in early childhood: A systematic review. (Campbell Systematic Review 2017:10). Oslo, Norway: Campbell Collaboration. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Self-regulation, defined as volitional control of attention, behavior, and executive functions for the purposes of goal-directed action is associated with multiple school-related outcomes. Children with robust self-regulation have been shown to more cooperatively participate in classroom activities, sustain focus on tasks and exhibit reduced behavioral issues. Tools of the Mind (Tools) is an early childhood education curriculum that aims to simultaneously promote children’s self-regulation and academic skills. Given the increasing focus on self-regulation and other social-emotional skills in educational contexts, Tools has become increasingly implemented in classrooms around the United States, Canada, and Chile. Despite its growing popularity, Tools’ evidence base remains mixed. Although Tools’ proliferation has been consistent in recent years, the findings from Tools evaluation studies have been inconsistent. These mixed findings have thus far precluded any authoritative conclusion regarding the curriculum’s effectiveness. The present review aims to provide education policymakers and practitioners with useful information regarding whether to implement Tools. Tools’ educational approach aligns with many child developmental theories as well as notions of best practice in the early childhood education field. The results presented here indicate small yet positive results for the Tools program. While these results are promising, they are based on a small evidence base; thus, more research is necessary to demonstrate Tools’ effectiveness in promoting children’s self-regulation skills. Multiple possibilities for future analyses would strengthen the existing Tools literature base. Three possibilities for future research include: (1) a multi-arm trial that directly compares Tools with other self-regulation programs; (2) a meta-analysis of several early childhood interventions and curricula; and (3) a study that accounts for measurement error in the self regulation construct.”

Diamond, A. (2014). Want to optimize executive functions and academic outcomes? Simple, just nourish the human spirit. Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology, 37, 205–232. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Executive functions (EFs) are critical for success in school, on the job, and in life. EFs suffer if you are lonely, sad, stressed, or not physically fit. Therefore, if we care about academic outcomes, we should care that students feel they are in a supportive community they can count on, that they are happy (even joyful), and that their bodies are strong and healthy. A school curriculum that ignores children’s emotional, social, or physical needs is likely to find that those unmet needs will work against achieving the academic goals.”

Diamond, A., & Ling, D. S. (2016). Conclusions about interventions, programs, and approaches for improving executive functions that appear justified and those that, despite much hype, do not. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, 34–48. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The ‘Executive Functions’ (EFs) of inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility enable us to think before we act, resist temptations or impulsive reactions, stay focused, reason, problem-solve, flexibly adjust to changed demands or priorities, and see things from new and different perspectives. These skills are critical for success in all life’s aspects and are sometimes more predictive than even IQ or socioeconomic status. Understandably, there is great interest in improving EFs. It’s now clear they can be improved at any age through training and practice, much as physical exercise hones physical fitness. However, despite claims to the contrary, wide transfer does not seem to occur and ‘mindless’ aerobic exercise does little to improve EFs. Important questions remain: How much can EFs be improved (are benefits only superficial) and how long can benefits be sustained? What are the best methods for improving EFs? What about an approach accounts for its success? Do the answers to these differ by individual characteristics such as age or gender? Since stress, sadness, loneliness, or poor health impair EFs, and the reverse enhances EFs, we predict that besides directly train EFs, the most successful approaches for improving EFs will also address emotional, social, and physical needs.”

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 ERIC 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.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Masten, A. S., Fiat, A. E., Labella, M. H., & Strack, R. A. (2015). Educating homeless and highly mobile students: Implications of research on risk and resilience. School Psychology Review, 44(3), 315–330. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Homelessness among children in poverty continues to confront schools, educators, and policymakers with major challenges. This commentary summarizes findings from 2 decades of research on academic risk and resilience in children experiencing homelessness. Recent research corroborates the early conclusion that although children experiencing homelessness share many risks with other disadvantaged children, they fall higher on a continuum of cumulative risk. Research also indicates resilience, with many homeless students succeeding in school. Implications for educational practice, training, research, and policy are discussed, particularly regarding school psychology. Evidence underscores the importance of identification, assessment, and administrative data; outreach and communication to ensure that mandated educational rights of homeless children are met; and coordinating education across schools and systems to provide continuity of services and learning. Early childhood education, screening, and access to quality programs are important for preventing achievement disparities that emerge early and persist among these students. Additional research is needed to inform, improve, and evaluate interventions to mitigate risk and promote school success of students facing homelessness.”

Moss, T. E., Benus, M. J., & Tucker, E. A. (2018). Impacting urban students’ academic achievement and executive function through school-based arts integration programs. SAGE Open, 8(2). Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Arts integration in school-based curriculum has been an area of interest in the United States since formal schooling began in the 1800s. Arts integration uses art forms such as, visual arts, music, drama, or dance with a language arts, math, science, and/or social studies curriculum. This article examines nine studies that assessed the effects of school-based arts integration on urban students’ academic achievement. Findings suggest that an arts-integrated curriculum has positive effects on urban student academic achievement. Despite the positive impact of arts integration, the cumulative understanding of current research does not definitively offer an explanation for why arts integration successfully impacts student achievement. The analysis of findings suggests that improvements in core content knowledge may be a minor outcome when compared with possible developmental gains in executive function (representational knowledge, operational processes, and self-regulation) from an arts integration program. Opportunities to focus future research in arts integration programs around the construct of executive function are suggested and justified based on analysis of findings.”

O’Conner, R., De Feyter, J., Carr, A., Luo, J. L., & Romm, H. (2017). A review of the literature on social and emotional learning for students ages 3–8: Implementation strategies and state and district support policies (part 2 of 4) (REL 2017–246). Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process by which children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. This is the second in a series of four related reports about what is known about SEL programs for students ages 3-8. The report series addresses four issues raised by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Mid-Atlantic’s Early Childhood Education Research Alliance: characteristics of effective SEL programs (part 1), implementation strategies and state and district policies that support SEL programming (part 2), teacher and classroom strategies that contribute to social and emotional learning (part 3), and outcomes of social and emotional learning in different student populations and settings (part 4). This report offers guidance on program implementation and identifies trends in integrating this learning at the state, district, and school levels. Resources on state and district supports for implementing social and emotional learning are appended.”

Rapport, M. D., Orban, S. A., Kofler, M. J., & Friedman, L. M. (2013). Do programs designed to train working memory, other executive functions, and attention benefit children with ADHD? A meta-analytic review of cognitive, academic, and behavioral outcomes. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(8), 1237–1252. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Children with ADHD are characterized frequently as possessing underdeveloped executive functions and sustained attentional abilities, and recent commercial claims suggest that computer-based cognitive training can remediate these impairments and provide significant and lasting improvement in their attention, impulse control, social functioning, academic performance, and complex reasoning skills. The present review critically evaluates these claims through meta-analysis of 25 studies of facilitative intervention training (i.e., cognitive training) for children with ADHD. Random effects models corrected for publication bias and sampling error revealed that studies training short-term memory alone resulted in moderate magnitude improvements in short-term memory (d=0.63), whereas training attention did not significantly improve attention and training mixed executive functions did not significantly improve the targeted executive functions (both nonsignificant: 95% confidence intervals include 0.0). Far transfer effects of cognitive training on academic functioning, blinded ratings of behavior (both nonsignificant), and cognitive tests (d=0.14) were nonsignificant or negligible. Unblinded raters (d=0.48) reported significantly larger benefits relative to blinded raters and objective tests (both p<.05), indicating the likelihood of Hawthorne effects. Critical examination of training targets revealed incongruence with empirical evidence regarding the specific executive functions that are (a) most impaired in ADHD, and (b) functionally related to the behavioral and academic outcomes these training programs are intended to ameliorate. Collectively, meta-analytic results indicate that claims regarding the academic, behavioral, and cognitive benefits associated with extant cognitive training programs are unsupported in ADHD. The methodological limitations of the current evidence base, however, leave open the possibility that cognitive training techniques designed to improve empirically documented executive function deficits may benefit children with ADHD.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

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

From the ERIC 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. EF processes are crucial for young children’s learning. On the one hand, they can help students control their anxiety when they face challenging academic tasks. On the other, these same processes can be undermined when children experience chronically stressful situations—for example, poverty, homelessness, and neighborhood crime. Such adverse early experiences interfere with children’s development of EF, hampering their ability to manage challenging situations. 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. What does our understanding of EF imply for policy in pre-K-3 education? First, write Raver and Blair, to help young children learn, school districts need data not only on their academic readiness but also on key dimensions of EF. Second, we already have interventions that can at least partially close the gap in neurocognitive function and academic achievement between children who face multiple types of adversity and those who don’t. In the long run, though, they argue, the best way to help these children is to invest in programs that reduce their exposure to chronic severe stress.”

Schwaighofer, M., Fischer, F., & Bühner, M. (2015). Does working memory training transfer? A meta-analysis including training conditions as moderators. Educational Psychologist, 50(2), 138–166. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “A meta-analysis was undertaken to reexamine near- and far-transfer effects following working-memory training and to consider potential moderators more systematically. Forty-seven studies with 65 group comparisons were included in the meta-analysis. Results showed near-transfer effects to short-term and working-memory skills that were sustained at follow-up with effect sizes ranging from g = 0.37 to g = 0.72 for immediate transfer and g = 0.22 to g = 0.78 for long-term transfer. Far-transfer effects to other cognitive skills were small, limited to nonverbal (g = 0.14) and verbal (g = 0.16) ability and not sustained at follow-up. Several moderators (e.g., duration of training sessions, supervision during training) had an influence on transfer effects, including far-transfer effects. We present principles for how best to improve working memory through training in the narrow-task paradigm and conjecture how best to improve basic cognitive functions in complex activity contexts.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Titz, C., & Karbach, J. (2014). Working memory and executive functions: Effects of training on academic achievement. Psychological Research, 78(6), 852–868. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The aim of this review is to illustrate the role of working memory and executive functions for scholastic achievement as an introduction to the question of whether and how working memory and executive control training may improve academic abilities. The review of current research showed limited but converging evidence for positive effects of process-based complex working-memory training on academic abilities, particularly in the domain of reading. These benefits occurred in children suffering from cognitive and academic deficits as well as in healthy students. Transfer of training to mathematical abilities seemed to be very limited and to depend on the training regime and the characteristics of the study sample. A core issue in training research is whether high- or low-achieving children benefit more from cognitive training. Individual differences in terms of training-related benefits suggested that process-based working memory and executive control training often induced compensation effects with larger benefits in low performing individuals. Finally, we discuss the effects of process-based training in relation to other types of interventions aimed at improving academic achievement.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Vandenbroucke, L., Spilt, J., Verschueren, K., Piccinin, C., & Baeyens, D. (2018). The classroom as a developmental context for cognitive development: A meta-analysis on the importance of teacher–student interactions for children’s executive functions. Review of Educational Research, 88(1), 125–164. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Executive functions (EFs), important cognitive processes that enable goal-directed behavior, develop due to maturation and environmental stimulation. The current study systematically reviews and synthesizes evidence on the association between teacher–student interactions and EFs. The search resulted in 28 studies, from which 23 studies provided sufficient data to be included in the calculations. Overall effect sizes indicate that teacher–child interactions are related to general executive functioning, working memory, and inhibition but not cognitive flexibility. Relationships were stronger for studies including children at the beginning of elementary school, studies with higher socioeconomic status participants and more boys, and studies measuring teacher–child interactions at the dyadic level. This study shows that qualitative teacher–child interactions are important for performance in EFs in children. This suggests that teachers can promote the cognitive processes that are essential in children’s learning by changing their behavior to create an emotionally positive, structured, and cognitively stimulating classroom environment.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Zelazo, P. D., Blair, C. B., & Willoughby, M. T. (2016). Executive function: Implications for education (NCER 2017–2000). Jessup, MD: National Center for Education Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Executive function (EF) skills are the attention-regulation skills that make it possible to sustain attention, keep goals and information in mind, refrain from responding immediately, resist distraction, tolerate frustration, consider the consequences of different behaviors, reflect on past experiences, and plan for the future. As EF research progresses, scientists, teachers, and parents are becoming more aware of the importance of these skills for learning in school settings for all students and especially for those at risk due to various factors, such as disabilities. In this paper, the authors highlight some key findings on EF and focus on its relevance to education research and practice. This paper’s primary audience includes graduate students and others conducting advanced study in the fields of education, developmental psychology, educational neuroscience, and public policy, as well as other interested education researchers and stakeholders. 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.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Behavioral interventions meta-analysis

  • Executive function academic achievement

  • Executive function academic intervention

  • Executive function elementary education

  • Executive function elementary secondary education

  • Executive function meta-analysis

  • Executive function secondary education

  • Executive function systematic review

Databases and Search Engines

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 IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

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

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 5 years, from 2014 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-;experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its 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.