Children who can shift focus in kindergarten have better academic outcomes

Classmates help to each other to find something at the globeChildren who can quickly shift their attention to new tasks perform better in school than children who have difficulty making those transitions, according to a new study in in Mind, Brain, and Education.

Cognitive control, the ability to shift behavior in response to changing demands and conditions, is an important factor in student learning and academic success, says study author Jeffrey Coldren.

“Given the alarming number of children who face educational failure in the U.S. school system, there is a great deal of interest in whether discoveries about the executive functioning and behavioral regulation capabilities of the prefrontal cortex may be used to improve children’s academic functioning,” he writes.

In this study of 65 kindergarteners, children who scored well on the Dimension Change Card Sort (DCCS), a popular measure of the cognitive control executive function task, performed better on standardized assessments and other academic outcome measures during the school year.

Cognitive control improves rapidly between the preschool and elementary years, the study says. Many 4-5 year-old children can switch quickly to the new DCCS task but most 3-year-olds perseverate, or continue the same behavior required by the earlier task. Being able to switch appropriately indicates that the prefrontal cortex is performing a variety of executive functioning skills, according to the study. The extent to which successful DCCS performance generalizes to other tasks is just beginning to be explored.

In this study, the children completed computerized DCCS tasks on geometry and on linguistics. Children were instructed to sort shapes by different matching criteria (e.g. color and shape) and to sort words by beginning or ending letters.

For example, for the computerized geometry task, the screen displays two target pictures, a green fish and a red balloon. When a third picture appears, a red fish, the child is instructed to match it to one of the targets based on color or shape. The child is allowed 15 trials to meet the criterion of 5 correct consecutive trials. The new linguistic version of DCCS requires children to match beginning and end letters of words, such as bed, red, rat, bat.

In a child must match it to one of two target pictures that appears at the top of the screen.  Children who scored well on a cognitive control measure, the Dimension Change Card Sort task, predicts kindergarteners performance in standardized achievement tests and in other outcome measures used by the school district.

Children’s results on DCCS were compared to their academic performance on the following measures, the standardized achievement test, the Mini-Battery of Achievement (MBA) which includes math and reading subscales and assessments already in place in the district; Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DiBELS) and the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment—Literacy (KRAL) Kindergarten Exit Test.

In examining specific outcomes, the DCCS composite measure significantly predicted three of the four variables (MBA-math, kindergarten, exit test, DIBELs) independently from age and ability at entry into kindergarten (KRAL). Moreover, individual differences analyses revealed that children who scored higher on the linguistic version of the DCCS task performed better on academic outcomes,” the study concludes.

Cognitive Control Predicts Academic Achievement in Kindergarten Children by Jeffrey T. Coldren, Mind, Brain, and Education, March 2013, Vol. 7, Issue 1, pp. 40–48.

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