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The Role of Executive Function in the Early Academic Achievement of Hispanics: A National Study

  • Author(s): Greenfader, Christa Renee
  • Advisor(s): Brouillette, Liane
  • Farkas, George
  • et al.

Hispanics represent a large and rapidly growing segment of students in U.S. schools. Thus, it is imperative for educators to find effective solutions to equip young Hispanics with the skills that they will need to thrive academically. There is strong consensus about the importance of English oral language skills for future academic performance, but less is known about how other cognitive skills, which are not necessarily predicated on English abilities, might aid young Hispanics as they enter elementary school. One such skill is executive function (EF). EF is composed of three main competencies: inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Previous research links early EF to future academic performance, but few studies have focused specifically on the EF of Hispanic children.

This dissertation is composed of three studies focused on Hispanic children’s kindergarten EF and how EF relates to other school readiness skills and future academic achievement. Data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010-11 (ECLS-K:2011) is used. As the largest and most recent, nationally-representative dataset, the ECLS-K:2011 offers a generalizable overview of the EF skills of many young Hispanics in the U.S. and how such abilities relate to their academic performance.

The first study investigates: (1) how kindergarten-entry EF and English oral language skills of Hispanic children vary by socioeconomic status (SES), prematurity, and home language factors; and (2) if EF mediates the impact of SES, prematurity, and English oral language on kindergarten-entry English reading, math, approaches to learning, and socio-emotional skills. The second study examines: (1) how the growth of Hispanic children’s EF between kindergarten and second grade varies as a result of SES and English oral language skills; and (2) if kindergarten EF mediates the relationship between SES and English oral language and second grade reading and math. The third study compares the EF of Hispanics and monolingual-English Whites, specifically examining: (1) if EF skills at kindergarten entry differ for monolingual-English Hispanics, bilingual Hispanics, monolingual-Spanish Hispanics, and monolingual-English Whites; (2) if the impact of kindergarten-entry EF on second grade math and reading differs between Hispanics and monolingual-English Whites and Hispanics of varying levels of English proficiency; and (3) any differences in the mediating role of EF between kindergarten-entry SES and English oral language skills and second grade achievement for Hispanics and monolingual-English Whites.

Results from the first study suggest that EF mediates the impact of SES, English oral language, and premature birth on kindergarten-entry academic, behavioral, and socio-emotional skills. Results from the second study indicate EF as a predictor of second grade reading and math, and, working memory in particular, as a mediating mechanism between kindergarten-entry SES and English oral language and future achievement. Results from the third study provide no evidence of a bilingual or bicultural advantage on EF for Hispanics, but suggest that kindergarten EF – primarily working memory – is more beneficial for the future academic achievement of Hispanics than monolingual-English Whites, and particularly for those Hispanics with the weakest level of English proficiency.

These three studies provide evidence that EF, and especially working memory, impacts the school readiness skills and future academic achievement of Hispanic children. Results from this dissertation suggest that early interventions targeted at boosting EF could potentially benefit the future achievement of Hispanic students.

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