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Executive Function Skills, Early Mathematics, and Vocabulary in Head Start Preschool Children

Pages 290-307 | Published online: 03 Sep 2016


Research Findings: The contribution of 3 executive function skills (shifting, inhibitory control, and working memory) and their relation to early mathematical skills was investigated with preschoolers attending 6 Head Start centers. Ninety-two children ranging in age from 3 years, 1 month, to 4 years, 11 months, who were native English or Spanish speakers were assessed for these executive function skills as well as their receptive vocabulary skills and early mathematical abilities using the Child Math Assessment (Starkey, Klein, & Wakeley, 2004), which captures an array of skills across 4 domains. Hierarchal regression analyses revealed that inhibitory control and working memory made unique contributions to children’s early mathematical abilities in the domains of numeracy, arithmetic, spatial/geometric reasoning, and patterning/logical relations after we controlled for age, receptive vocabulary, and previous Head Start experience. Furthermore, receptive vocabulary also accounted for significant variance in children’s early mathematical abilities above and beyond executive function skills. No group differences emerged between English-only and dual language learners on the fit of the regression models. Practice or Policy: These findings extend previous research highlighting the interface of executive function skills and mathematical learning in early childhood with further evidence to support this relationship beyond early numeracy and counting using a broad measure of critical early math skills. In addition, the intricate role of language in the development of early mathematical competence is considered. Implications of these findings for scaffolding executive function skills and vocabulary within prekindergarten math curricula are discussed, with particular consideration for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds.


1 A power analysis conducted using Number Crunching Statistical System Statistical and Power Analysis Software indicated that this sample size was more than adequate to detect large group differences in a multiple regression analysis for a power of .80 at a .05 significance level.

2 Of the 36 Spanish-speaking children, 19 were unable to complete the TVIP because of a lack of vocabulary knowledge in Spanish and performed higher on the PPVT-4; in these cases, the PPVT standard score was used for data analysis.

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