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Executive Functioning at school entry: Outcome, mediator and predictor

Valcan, Debora S. (2019) Executive Functioning at school entry: Outcome, mediator and predictor. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Executive Functioning (EF) in early childhood is relevant to important developmental outcomes, including self-regulated learning (SRL) and academic achievement. However, questions remain about EF’s status as an outcome of parental behaviours (Study 1), mediator of the relation between family environment and SRL (Study 2) and predictor of academic achievement (Study 3) and SRL (Study 4). Therefore, four studies were conducted to explore the role of EF during the first two years of schooling.

For Study 1, a meta-analysis was conducted to determine the strength and direction of the relation between three categories of parental behaviour and EF in children aged 0 to 8 years. Forty-two studies, published between 2000 and 2016, were identified. Results revealed modest, but significant associations between EF and all three categories of parental behaviour: positive (r = .25), negative (r = -.22) and cognitive (r = .20).

To investigate EF as a possible domain-general mediator between family environment and SRL, Study 2 investigated whether aspects of the home environment and parental behaviours predicted children’s SRL via vocabulary or EF, and whether such associations flowed through to children’s academic outcomes. Home and parenting variables, child EF, vocabulary, SRL and academic achievement were assessed at Time 1 (T1). Academic achievement was re-assessed one year later (T2). Structural equation modelling was conducted on a complete matched data set of 98 child-parent dyads. EF was found to mediate the relation between family income and SRL. In addition, SRL was predicted directly by frequency of shared activities, female gender, and age. Vocabulary did not predict SRL, but was predicted by parental negative affect and control. SRL, EF, and vocabulary all predicted academic achievement (R2 = .43), fully mediating the home and parenting variables’ effects. Consistent with prior research, Study 2 demonstrated that EF predicts academic achievement. Nevertheless, few studies have investigated the potential causal pathways through which this might occur. Therefore, Study 3 compared two models representing how this might occur, namely, the immediate effects model (EF predicts future academic achievement via concurrent academic achievement), and the growth potential model (EF predicts future academic achievement directly). Structural equation modelling analyses were conducted on a longitudinal dataset of 176 children at Time 1 (T1) and one year later (T2). For mathematics, results supported the immediate effects model, with T1 EF predicting T2 mathematics only via T1 mathematics, whereas for reading and writing, paths consistent with both models were found: T1 EF directly predicted T2 academic achievement, and also indirectly predicted T2 academic achievement via T1 academic achievement.

Like EF, SRL is considered important for academic achievement. Recently, researchers have proposed theoretical links between EF and SRL. However, very few studies have investigated empirically the relation between EF and SRL, particularly in early childhood. Study 4 investigated the longitudinal association between EF and SRL in 176 children, during the transition from kindergarten (T1) to Year 1 (T2), through cross-lagged structural equation models. EF predicted SRL longitudinally (r = .43, controlling for kindergarten SRL), but SRL did not predict EF. In addition, evidence for a common factor model was also found. In conclusion, EF in early childhood may be somewhat predicted by family environment (EF as an outcome), partially explain family environment’s association with children’s SRL and academic achievement (EF as a mediator) and support future SRL and academic achievement (EF as a predictor). Together, these findings highlight EF’s importance in relation to developmental outcomes, and point to ways of cultivating early learning.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: Psychology, Counselling, Exercise Science and Chiropractic
Supervisor(s): Davis, Helen and Pino-Pasternak, Deborah
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