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Kindergarten students sitting on the floor

Controlling impulses. Remembering and using information. Looking at problems from multiple perspectives. Being able to shift focus.

Known as executive functions, these skills are important for young children to hone before beginning school.

Anne Conway
Anne Conway

A new study led by Anne Conway, the new Urban Child Institute Endowed Professor in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s College of Social Work, shows that large disparities in executive function exist among children even before they begin formal schooling.

The study shows that children’s executive function development is linked to their parents’ level of education: the higher the parents’ educational attainment, the higher their children’s executive function.

“These children have greater advantages right from the start,” Conway said.

The study also showed that parents’ expectations, along with the learning resources and opportunities they’re able to provide—from reading to their children to keeping ample books in the home to arranging private child care—are associated with less disparity in kids’ executive function.

“Disparities in Kindergarteners’ Executive Functions at Kindergarten Entry: Relations with Parenting and Child Care” was published recently in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

While other studies have looked at the impact of parents’ socioeconomic status—a combination of education and income—on executive function, Conway said, this new study teased apart the two factors to focus primarily on education.

Also unique to this study was the size and diversity of the sample.

Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics, the researchers looked at more than 12,500 children entering kindergarten throughout the United States in the fall of 2010. Families studied were nationally representative and ethnically diverse.

The study included phone interviews with the parents to learn about the specific skills their children needed for school readiness, whether they expected that their child would receive a college degree, child care arrangements before kindergarten, learning resources and opportunities at home, and other factors.

Children received executive function assessments at school from trained staff.

The researchers honed in on two particular aspects of executive function: cognitive flexibility, measured by having a child sort picture cards first by color and then by shape, and working memory, measured by asking a child to repeat number sequences of increasing length in reverse order. Both are widely used tests to assess executive function.

Conway and her colleagues found large gaps in children’s executive function based on their parents’ education. Children whose parents had a college degree or more showed greater cognitive flexibility and working memory when they entered kindergarten than children of parents with some or no college education. The largest gap was in working memory. The gaps narrowed, however, for children whose parents did not have a degree but reported a large number of books in the home, frequent reading, and enrollment in private child care.

The researchers also found that children whose parents expected them to receive a college degree had significantly higher executive function compared to children whose parents did not expect them to receive a college degree. Also, a parent’s belief that their child needed to know specific skills (knowing letters, counting to 20, etc.) to be ready for kindergarten was associated with the child’s having better working memory skills.

The researchers observed that parents who expected their child to receive a college degree and encouraged their children to master these specific skills were also more likely to be reading and telling stories to their children.

The researchers say their findings suggest that children might benefit if their parents have more access and opportunity to further their education.

“Other studies have shown that children of parents who participated in educational training programs had higher school readiness skills compared to children whose parents did not,” Conway said. “This also may be true for executive function.”

Conway said the findings suggest Tennessee is on the right track with some of its new education initiatives.

“Tennessee’s innovative Reconnect initiative, which aims to increase adults’ access to earning an associate’s degree or technical certificate, and the Drive to 55 plan, the goal of which is to have 55 percent of Tennessee adults with a college degree or more by 2025, may have indirect returns for children.

“Our findings also point to the need to expand access to educationally oriented child care. Such policies, in conjunction with programs to increase learning resources and opportunities—such as the number of books in the home and parent reading and related activities—may reduce early disparities,” Conway said. “This, in turn, could help to equalize the playing field for children as they enter school and could have longer-term benefits for children’s life opportunities.”


Amy Blakely (865-974-5034,