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Testing the Association between Physical Activity Level and Executive Functions in Early Childhood

Year: 2016
Name of Institution:
Research Triangle Institute
Goal: Exploration
Principal Investigator:
Willoughby, Michael
Award Amount: $1,399,214
Award Period: 4 years (7/1/2016-6/30/2020)
Award Number: R305A160035

Description:

Co-Principal Investigator: Diane Catellier

Purpose: The purpose of this project is to examine whether and under what conditions individual differences in child physical activity in preschool settings are associated with enhanced executive functioning and academic achievement. Opportunities for children to engage in physical activity at school (e.g., recess, physical education) have diminished over time due to school's increased emphasis on academic accountability. Growing evidence, however, suggests that increased levels of physical activity are associated with improved cognitive function and perhaps academic achievement. The magnitude of the effects of physical activity on children's cognitive and academic outcomes remains uncertain and little is known about whether increased opportunities for physical activity are associated with improved academic achievement, especially given the potential for loss in instructional time.

Project Activities: This study will use a multiple cohort short-term longitudinal design. Specially, three cohorts of 80 preschool children ages 3 to 5 years will be followed over an academic year. Repeated measures data (i.e., child physical activity and child school readiness outcomes) will be collected across three 1-week periods in the fall, winter, and spring of the academic year. Researchers will use structural equation modeling to examine whether individual differences in child physical activity in preschool settings are associated with improved executive function and academic achievement, controlling for child physical activity in non-school settings and exploring mediators (i.e., executive function) and moderators (e.g., context in which physical activity occurred and/or child attributes).

Products: Researchers will produce preliminary evidence of the relationship between physical activity, cognitive functioning, and academic achievement, and will publish in peer-reviewed publications.

Structured Abstract

Setting: Participating childcare settings are located in urban, suburban, and rural communities in North Carolina.

Sample: Study participants include 240 children (ages 3 through 5 years) across three cohorts. Children with physical disabilities that prohibit movement and intellectual disabilities that limit their ability to complete standardized testing will be excluded from the study.

Intervention: The malleable factors of interest in this study are child physical activity, which could integrate into the development of a preschool intervention.

Research Design and Methods: This study will use a multiple cohort short-term longitudinal design. Repeated measures data will be collected across three 1-week periods in the fall, winter, and spring of the academic year. This design allows researchers to examine the directionality of effects and within-person associations between physical activity and school readiness.

Control Condition: There is no control condition in this study.

Key Measures: Researchers will use accelerometers (movement monitors that have the ability to capture intensity of physical activity) to assess child physical activity for three 5-day periods across the academic year. The research team will use the Willoughby-Blair battery to assess executive function and subscales of the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Achievement to assess school readiness. They will use the Play Observation Scale to assess the context in which children's preschool-based physical activity occurs. Researchers will compute body mass index using child height and weight. The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, Strengths and Weaknesses of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms, and Normal Behavior and the Developmental Coordinator Disorder rating scales will assess child behavior.

Data Analytic Strategy: Researchers will use structural equation modeling to examine whether individual differences in child physical activity in preschool settings are associated with improved executive function and academic achievement, controlling for child physical activity in non-school settings and exploring mediators (i.e., executive function) and moderators (e.g., context in which physical activity occurred and/or child attributes).