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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Strong start

October 14, 2010

Child writing.

Skills in goal-directed behavior determine children's early school success

"Executive function" may sound like the stuff of the boardroom, but it is critically important in the elementary classroom. Its absence is obvious when a child can't sit still during story time or can't refrain blurting out comments when others are speaking.

Executive function is an umbrella term for skills in goal-directed behavior and self-control. Preschool children who lack these skills face an uphill battle in school readiness and achievement.

Assessing executive function
Creating new ways to assess executive function in children and to identify lagging development has long been the focus of Stephanie Carlson and Philip Zelazo at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development.

Carlson is creating a standardized set of assessment tools for executive function skills, which can be difficult to identify. Early childhood educators, schools and other specialists could use the tools to screen for school readiness. Zelazo has developed a foundational approach for assessing goal-directed behavior in children, connecting neuroscience with cognitive development.

The importance of early assessment
"Children make the most striking advances in the preschool period. It really improves drastically," Carlson says. "If we can help three- to four-year-olds get up to speed in executive function, they will be on a more level playing field with their peers when they start school."

The study of executive function and its effect on school readiness is critically important. Zelazo says, "[It's] an important predictor of many real-world developmental outcomes, like school achievement or behavioral problems. In many cases it's a more important predictor than intelligence. For early school performance, being able to sit still and pay attention to the teacher are more important determinates of success than being smart."

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