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Executive Function Skills and Math: What's the Relationship?

Research on the development of executive function (EF) and early competencies in mathematics has suggested a substantial relationship between EF and math (Bull & Lee, 2014; Clements et al., 2016). With millions of students underachieving in math, districts are looking to curriculum to shift the balance. Yet, the real answer lies in improving the executive function skills necessary for learning. When students have better executive function skills they can focus, remember, encode, retrieve, problem-solve and effectively apply mathematical knowledge.

Executive Function

Executive Function is a collection of self-regulatory control processes that are divided into core domains of working memory, inhibition, control of attention, and cognitive flexibility (Miyake et al., 2000; Diamond, 2013). Understood as distinct, yet related higher-order neurocognitive processes, executive function includes attention-regulation skills (Zelazo et al., 2016) that allow the control of thoughts and behaviors that facilitate intentional cognitive action (Santana et al., 2022).

Executive Function is central to learning and achievement as these cognitive skills guide daily life as children preview where they are going or what they are doing, plan for efficient outcomes of their actions, attend to salient details in their environment, hold and update information in their memory, inhibit impulsive responses, and remain cognitively flexible to adapt to changes in circumstances (Pasqual et al., 2019; Santana et al., 2022; Zelazo et al., 2016).

Poor EF skills are associated with difficulties in reading (Gooch et al., 2016), mathematics (Meiri et al., 2020), and language (Shrokrkon & Nocoladis, 2022). Executive Function is a protective factor associated with academic success and school graduation (Duncan et al., 2007; Watts et al., 2018).

Research shows executive function skills are critical to school readiness (Zelazo and Carlson, 2020). For children with learning disabilities and neurodevelopmental diagnoses, executive function skills are key indicators of academic, social, and behavioral achievement. Studies have shown that executive functions, defined as cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control are malleable and predict academic achievement in children over and above IQ and socioeconomic status (Blair & Raver, 2014).

Executive Function and Math Achievement

While executive function is shown to be related to broad aspects of academic achievement including reading and science, the relationship between math and executive function is particularly robust (Blair & Razza, 2007; Best et al., 2009; Best & Miller, 2010; Schmitt,

Pratt, & McClelland, 2014). Young children with better functioning cognitive skills such as self-regulation, self-control, response inhibition, attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility appear to excel at math and reading when compared with lesser-skilled peers (Shrokrkon & Nocoladis, 2022).

Research indicates that EF skills provide a foundation for academic achievement, playing a particularly important role in math learning and problem-solving (Zelazo & Carlson, 2020).

Early mathematics achievement predicts later reading achievement as strongly or more strongly than early reading achievement (Duncan et al., 2007, cited in Morgan et al. 2018). The association of EF may be more easily detectable in math because while planning, sequencing, attention, and memory are important in reading, current research shows that the core deficit in significantly poor reading skills is phonological processing, a skill related to language processing (Tanaka et al, 2011; Miciak & Fletcher 2020). Phonological awareness, auditory processing, visual attention, and working memory, have been shown to play predictive roles in both reading and writing (Hendren et al., 2018).

Math is highly associated with sequencing, patterning, working memory, cognitive flexibility, problem-solving, abstracting, prediction, and deduction, all related to executive function. Detecting a pattern within a sequence of ordered units, defined as patterning, is a cognitive ability that is important in learning mathematics and influential in learning to read (Bock et al., 2018). Research examining the executive function in preschoolers’ understanding of repeating patterns has shown that cognitive flexibility, response inhibition, and working memory, are related to understanding patterns (see Bock et al., 2018).

Recent studies show that children with higher cognitive flexibility levels show higher math scores in basic numerical skill problems, as well as in the understanding of numbers, which includes the comprehension of whole numbers, fractions, decimals, and integers (Santana et al., 2022.

Executive function skills have been shown in many research studies to be related to math achievement. Children with better executive function skills including but not limited to attention, working memory and cognitive flexibility succeed in math with greater ease than their less skilled peers. In education, as we aim to improve learning, achievement, and behavior outcomes for students, focusing on improving executive function skills in the early years is a necessary and worthwhile goal.

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