Executive Functioning and Academic Achievement

By Andrew Davis, CEI Intern

From a blog post by Daniel Young (2013):

‘I asked him, ‘˜Do you have a homework routine?’ The answer was a clear ‘˜No. I just get it done after I play outside,’ Jake said. His grades were reflecting the inconsistent quality of his non-strategic approach. After asking, it became clear how he felt about his work. He wanted to do well, yet he often would say he did not like school and would not put forth the effort when the work was ‘˜boring. ‘˜Sometimes I just want to play outside and it’s hard to stay focused,’ he would say. The homework breaks were long and frequent. It became hard to push through.”

This child struggles with many different aspects of executive functioning.

From Baddeley’s working memory model to Russell Barkley’s self-regulation model to Miller and Cohen’s prefrontal cortex argument, many different theories have been proposed about executive functioning.  One of the more recent theories of executive functioning was proposed by Miyake and Friedman (2000) who posit that executive functioning is made up of three core components: switching, updating, and inhibition.

  • Switching refers to being able to shift between multiple tasks, operations, or mental sets (Monsell, 1996.)
  • Updating (commonly also referred to as working memory) refers to filtering incoming information a certain task, and then sorting that information so that newer, more relevant information replaces irrelevant information (Morris & Jones, 1990).
  • Inhibition refers to the ability to deliberately stop dominant and or automatic responses (Miyake& Friedman, 2000).

Different theories may divide these categories up into more parts, or label them differently, but these seem like three of the most important aspects in understanding executive functioning. These are all important skills to have within a classroom (The Understood Team, 2013).

  • Shifting can be required to understand different themes within a novel, to shift between different operations within a single mathematic equation, or even shifting between two languages in order to learn a secondary one.
  • Updating is used in some of the same categories: one must update what information that they are gaining throughout a story, or throughout a word problem in math.
  • Socially, children need inhibition to not be a disturbance in a classroom, or to not get overly upset with a bad grade.

So what relationship does executive functioning have to academic achievement?  Through meta-analysis, Jacob and Parkinson (2015) discovered that ‘there is a moderate unconditional association between executive function skills and achievement at both a single point in time and as a predictor of future achievement.’  The association between executive functioning and academic achievement had the same level of correlation at different age groups, between different facets of executive functioning including inhibition, attention control, attention shifting, and working memory, using both natural and laboratory measurements.

Best et. al (2011) found through administering tests that, ‘Generally, the magnitude of EF improvement was large across the youngest groups, became more moderate in late childhood, and diminished further during adolescence.’ They also found evidence that executive functioning is related to common cognitive processes that are not restricted to specific academic domains.  In a task where participants were asked to solely find identical numbers, the results correlated equally well with math and reading.  For example, the ability to create a system of operations for a mathematical word problem, or revise how a character is viewed with new information in a book  both rely on executive functioning and are important for academic success.

Lan et. al (2011) wanted to look at cultural differences in the three common parts of executive function.  They administered a number of different tests, from Head’“Toes’“Knees’“Shoulders (HTKS), which has been shown to measure inhibition (Ponitz et al., 2008) to a sentence completion task (adapted from the reading span task developed by Towse, Hitch, and Hutton (2002) which has been shown to measure working memory, to the Woodcock’“Johnson Pair Cancellation task used to measure attentional control by circling set pairs from a randomly generated piece sequence (Woodcock, McGrew, & Mather, 2001).  Two additional academic achievement tests were also administered.  Results showed that Chinese children performed better than American children in inhibition and attention tasks.  These differences may be due to differences on what seems to be valued in classrooms (i.e, ‘behaving’ and following classroom rules or creative thinking.)

Additionally, Schmidt et. al (2017) looked at the relationship between motor ability and children’s academic achievement to determine if that relationship was mediated by executive functioning.  They tested motor ability by having the children run as a measure of endurance, and they tested strength and coordination through a standing jump and sideways jumping respectively.  Executive functioning was measured through 10-minute computer tasks using E-prime software (Psychology Software Tools, Pittsburgh, PA).  Academic achievement was measured through standardized reading, math, and spelling tests.  They found executive function to be a mediator between motor ability and academic achievement and a positive correlation between motor ability and academic achievement. This provides some initial evidence that executive function may help to explain the relationship between children’s physical activities, and that physical activity may be a useful developmental tool.

Diamond and Lee (2011) found many tools have been developed to help those who struggle with executive functioning.  Using computer games, improvement in executive functioning and mathematics were found 6 months later (Holmes et. al, 2009).  Aerobic exercise has been shown to improve prefrontal cortex function and executive functioning (Hillman et. al, 2008).  Bimanual coordination activities, including exercise (Budde et. al, 2008) and music training (Rauscher et. al, 1997), have also been shown to potentially improve executive functioning. Mindfulness training enabled children with poor EF to improve in both shifting and monitoring (Flook et. al, 2010).

And yes, the child from the beginning of this article had improved as well.  An email from the child’s mother reported that he was doing better with organization, sustained attention, and task completion.  There are many success stories out there, from the experiences of people who are coached around executive functioning skills, to those who just simply perform tasks to aid with their executive functioning.  Anyone can struggle with executive functioning, no matter what age or what year of school that they are in.  There are many ways to improve upon these skills, and they are very important for many different functions in the world.


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Lan X., Ponitz C.C., Miller K.F., Li S., Cortina K., Perry M., Fang G. (2009),. Keeping their attention: Classroom practices associated with behavioral engagement in first grade mathematics classes in China and the United States  Early Childhood Research Quarterly,  24  (2) , pp. 198-211.

Lan, X., Legare, C. H., Ponitz, C. C., Li, S., & Morrison, F. J. (2011). Investigating the links between the subcomponents of executive function and academic achievement: A cross-cultural analysis of Chinese and American preschoolers. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology,108(3), 677-692.

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Schmidt M, Egger F, Benzing V, Jäger K, Conzelmann A, Roebers CM, et al. (2017) Disentangling the relationship between children’s motor ability, executive function and academic achievement. PLoS ONE 12(8): e0182845.

Towse, J. N., Hitch, G. J., and Hutton, U. (2002). On the nature of the relationship between processing activity and item retention in children. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 82, 156’“184.

The Understood Team (2013). E-book: Executive function 101. Understood for learning and attention issues website.

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Young, D. (2013, October 3). An executive function coaching success story. Executive Function Strategies Blog. Beyond Book Smart.  


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