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Review of the Evidence on, and Fundamental Questions About, Efforts to Improve Executive Functions, Including Working Memory

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Abstract

This systematic review of executive function (EF) interventions is the largest such review thus far, including 179 studies from all over the world, reported in 193 papers. It covers all the ways that have been tried to improve EFs, including computerized and noncomputerized cognitive training, neurofeedback, school programs, physical activities, mindfulness practices, and miscellaneous approaches (e.g., drama and Experience Corps), at all ages. A little studied approach—mindfulness practices involving movement (such as taekwondo and t’ai chi)—shows the best results for improving EFs. Promising school programs are second. Both approaches show better results than any cognitive training. Third best at improving EFs is noncomputerized cognitive training. Perhaps these three approaches show better results than computerized training because they involve more in-person trainer-trainee interaction. The best-performing computerized cognitive-training method for improving EFs is Cogmed®. Support was lacking for claims that N-back training improves fluid intelligence. Resistance training and “plain” aerobic-exercise interventions (e.g., running or walking) show the least evidence of benefit to EFs of all methods. Results for aerobic exercise with more cognitive or motor-skill challenges are only slightly better. This probably reflects how physical-activity interventions have been structured, rather than that physical activity does not benefit EFs. For any intervention, trainers’ ability to make the training activity enjoyable and to communicate their unwavering faith in participants and the program plus the activity being personally meaningful and relevant, inspiring commitment and emotional investment in participants to the activity and to one another is probably what is most important.
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... In particular, with regard to the skills that are critical for academic success, research has revealed that the development of executive functions (EF hereafter) plays a fundamental role (Cortés Pascual et al., 2019;Diamond, 2013). These executive functions have proven to be a key element in the development of skills in language and mathematics, as well as in the processing and organization of information received (Blair & Raver, 2015;Blair & Razza, 2007;Diamond & Ling, 2019;Duncan et al., 2007;Sesma et al., 2009;Zelazo & Carlson, 2012). Executive functions are understood as those neurocognitive mechanisms that control thoughts and behaviors aimed at achieving a goal or objective (Diamond, 2013). ...
... It is more than obvious to think that students who have the ability to act in the classroom in a thoughtful way, or who are able to stay focused despite distractions, have a greater chance of academic success. In fact, interventions that improve executive functions result in notable improvement in these behaviors or actions (Diamond & Lee, 2011;Diamond & Ling, 2019;Kassai et al., 2019). Several authors have shown that when the inhibitory demand is reduced in certain tasks, students have an easier time solving those tasks (Cassotti et al., 2016;Houdé & Borst, 2015;Lubin et al., 2013). ...
... Given that EF are subject to significant development throughout childhood and considering that they are significant predictors of many outcomes associated with learning, success, or academic performance (Karbach & Unger, 2014;Schwaighofer et al., 2015;Titz & Karbach, 2014), numerous studies have focused on the improvement of EF through computerized interventions (Diamond & Ling, 2019). With respect to the transfer that can be derived from this type of training, the evidence is ambiguous (Pandey et al., 2018;Smid et al., 2020). ...
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In terms of critical skills for academic achievement, the literature has revealed that the development of executive functions (EF) plays a key role. Although numerous researchers have aimed to improve EF through computerized cognitive training interventions, the evidence of the effect derived from these interventions remains ambiguous. The purpose of this study is to investigate the effects of a computerized game-based training program on EF and its impact on academic performance in 713 Spanish Primary School students (M = 10.2 years old, 51.3% girls). The EF training was carried out in 8 weeks, 3 sessions of 15–20 minutes each week, measuring students’ EF and obtaining information on academic performance. The results showed an improvement within the training group in the questionnaires exploring inhibition and working memory, as well as in academic performance, compared to the control group. In contrast, no significant intergroup differences were observed in the inhibition tasks.
... EF skills undergo exceptionally rapid development during the preschool period, peaking in late adolescence, before declining into later adulthood . Importantly, evidence suggests that EF skills are highly malleable and are sensitive to training (Diamond and Ling, 2019). Given the relevance of EF skills for a range of child outcomes and their plasticity in early childhood, researchers have become increasingly interested in identifying factors that might support the early development of these important skills. ...
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Although previous work has linked parent autonomy support to the development of children’s executive function (EF) skills, the role of specific autonomy-supportive behaviors has not been thoroughly investigated. We compiled data from four preschool-age samples in the Midwestern United States ( N = 366; M age = 44.26 months; 72% non-Hispanic White, 19% Black/African American, 5% Multiracial) to examine three relevant autonomy-supportive behaviors (supporting competence, positive verbalizations, and offering choice) and their associations with child EF. We coded parent autonomy-supportive behaviors from a 10-min interaction between parent and child dyads working on challenging jigsaw puzzles together. Children completed a battery of EF. Overall, child EF was most consistently correlated with the offering choice subscale. Additionally, only the offering choice subscale predicted child EF while controlling for the other autonomy support subscales and child age. These results suggest that parent provision of choice is an especially relevant aspect of autonomy-supportive parenting and may be important to the development of EF in early childhood. Future research should directly measure children’s experience with choice and how it relates to emerging EF.
... Llama la atención el hallazgo sobre la ausencia de influencia significativa de las competencias parentales en la FC de los/as niños/as de la muestra, lo que se contrapone a la evidencia científica al respecto. No obstante, esto podría ser explicado desde un punto de vista madurativo, en el sentido de que está bien documentado que el desarrollo de la flexibilidad cognitiva está modulado por la adquisición previa de otras habilidades cognitivas y, por ende, se desarrolla en etapas posteriores respecto al grupo etario de los/as niños/as de la muestra (Davidson et al., 2006;Diamond, 2013;Diamond & Ling, 2020). Evidencia de esto es el estudio realizado por García et al. (2010), en el cual niños/as que cursaban tercero básico tuvieron un mejor desempeño en tareas que ISSN (Digital): 2223-7666 Liberabit, 2021, 27(2), e471 (julio -diciembre) evaluaban la FC que los/as de primer grado. ...
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Antecedentes: pese a que existe evidencia sobre el efecto que tienen los contextos en que se desenvuelven los/as niños/as en su desarrollo cognitivo y funcionamiento ejecutivo, hay pocos estudios que analicen la influencia específica que tienen determinadas competencias parentales en la atención y la flexibilidad cognitiva. Objetivo: el objetivo de este estudio fue determinar la influencia de las competencias parentales vinculares, formativas, reflexivas y protectoras, sobre la atención y la flexibilidad cognitiva de escolares de primer grado. Método: participaron 96 díadas de padre/madre/cuidador e hijo/a de escuelas chilenas. Los primeros fueron evaluados/as mediante la Escala de Parentalidad Positiva (e2p) y los/as niños/as con las subpruebas Sendero Color y Sendero Gris de la Batería ENFEN. Se realizaron análisis de correlación de Pearson y ANOVA unidireccional. Resultados: los resultados evidenciaron una influencia significativa de las competencias parentales formativas y protectoras en la atención de los/as niños/as. No se encontró influencia de ninguna competencia parental en la flexibilidad cognitiva. Conclusiones: estos resultados podrían explicarse desde un punto de vista madurativo, pues el desarrollo de la flexibilidad cognitiva está modulado por la adquisición previa de otras habilidades cognitivas y, en consecuencia, se desarrolla en etapas posteriores respecto al grupo etario de la muestra.
... Support and feedback from adults facilitate both motivation for continued engagement in challenging activities and perceptions of competence and enjoyment, and they also foster acceptance of momentary failures which plays an integral role in ultimately achieving the desired goal of learning and success. 105,106 The integration of scaffolding processes in various contexts across a child's life, therefore, is critical to enhancing developmental processes in multiple domains. Outdoor environments also can provide a new challenge for children's development and can be viewed as a natural setting for scaffolding. ...
... Physical activity that entails physical effort as well as cognitive, social, and emotional demands (e.g., martial arts) may also enhance cognition through the development of self-regulation, defined as "the processes by which the self alters its own responses, including thoughts, emotions, and behaviors" (Baumeister 1997;Diamond and Ling 2019). An early study conducted by Lakes and Hoyt (2004) investigated the impact of school-based martial arts (Tae Kwon Do) training on self-regulatory abilities in kindergarten children. ...
Article
Over the last decade, a growing body of research has examined the link between physical activity, fitness, and cognitive function in children and adolescents. Physical activity experimental research conducted with children and adolescents has identified selectively greater effects for tasks requiring higher order executive functions. As such, the primary aim of our chapter is to provide an overview of findings from systematic reviews and meta-analyses that have examined the effects of physical activity on measures of executive function in child and adolescent populations. We begin our chapter with definitions of key concepts associated with physical activity, fitness and cognitive function. We then provide a synthesis of systematic reviews and meta-analyses that have examined the acute and chronic effect of physical activity on EFs. Following this, we discuss the quantitative (e.g., time, intensity) and qualitative (e.g., type) characteristics of physical activity that may moderate effects. The next section focuses on the neurobiological, psychosocial and behavioral mechanisms responsible for the effect of physical activity on executive functions. We conclude by highlighting the limitations of the existing evidence base and providing recommendations for future research.
... Pesce et al. (2021) suggest to take a holistic lens when examining effects of physical activity on cognition, not only by taking into account contextual conditions, but also by examining multiple mechanisms acting at different levels. Besides the physiological and cognitive stimulation mechanisms examined in our study, they for example mention emotional mechanisms, in which it is argued that physical activity affects cognition via enjoyment of the activities involved (Diamond & Ling, 2020;Ekkekakis et al., 2013), and psychosocial mechanisms, in which it is assumed that physical activity affects cognition and academic achievement by increasing social engagement and interaction (see Pesce et al. 2021). Relatedly, other studies have referred to, amongst others, increased self-esteem and higher school engagement (Bailey, 2017;Lubans et al., 2016), or positive effects on behaviors that are related to cognitive and mental outcomes, such as healthier eating patterns and improved sleep quality (Bailey, 2017;Lubans et al., 2016). ...
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Different types of physical activity are thought to differentially affect children’s brain activation, via physiological mechanisms, or by activating similar brain areas during physical and cognitive tasks. Despite many behavioral studies relying on these mechanisms, they have been rarely studied. This study looks at both mechanisms simultaneously, by examining effects of two physical activity interventions (aerobic vs. cognitively-engaging) on children’s brain activation. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) data of 62 children (48.4% boys, mean age 9.2 years) was analyzed. Children’s visuospatial working memory related brain activity patterns were tested using a Spatial Span Task before and after the 14-week interventions consisting of four physical education lessons per week. The control group followed their regular program of two lessons per week. Analyses of activation patterns in SPM 12.0 revealed no activation changes between pretest and posttest (p > .05), and no differences between the three conditions in pretest–posttest changes in brain activation (p > .05). Large inter-individual differences were found, suggesting that not every child benefited from the interventions in the same way. To get more insight into the assumed mechanisms, further research is needed to understand whether, when, for whom, and how physical activity results in changed brain activation patterns.
... Despite the extensive literature on interventions in SR and/or EF, especially in childhood (as depicted in reviews and meta-analyses of the area, e.g., Diamond & Ling, 2020;Pandey et al., 2018), this is one of the few studies that focused on effects and perceptions of teachers in relation to their participation in this type of intervention. In general, despite some weakness in the quantitative inferences, the descriptive analysis and qualitative data converged to support the evidence that teachers can also gain from participating in a program of SR activities aimed at students. ...
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This study investigated the potential effects of teachers’ participation and perceptions in a self-regulation promotion program for children. Participants were 10 teachers and their early childhood education classes (total of 189 children) of two public schools located in central São Paulo. The experimental group (EG) was composed of five teachers, who were trained and applied self-regulation activities with their classes throughout the year. The teachers and the five other classes formed the control group (CG) which maintained their regular curricular activities. The fieldwork took place over the course of 1 year, through four stages: pre-test, teachers’ training, intervention, and post-test. Pre- and post-test teachers’ assessment included measures of self-regulation, stress, and classroom observation. In addition, they were also interviewed in the post-test. Despite the limitation of quantitative data, EG teachers showed greater decrease in the stress level between the pre- and post-tests than controls (with ES r = .68). There were no significant group effects on self-regulation promoting behaviors in the classroom and self-regulation of the teachers. The EG teachers reported benefits of the intervention for the children and for themselves. Looking at variables of the teachers who delivered the intervention is an original aspect of the paper and the trends found encourage and direct future research. Knowledge about self-regulation should be incorporated into the training and practice of these professionals.
... School-based programs, curricula, and interventions are now widely adopted in school contexts, though an array of challenges related to feasibility of implementation and the challenges of integration in the instructional work of classrooms remain (Jones and Bouffard, 2012;Jones et al., 2018). Children's development across social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive domains is posited to build on a set of core executive functions and self-regulation skills (EFs and SR; Diamond and Lee, 2011;Bailey and Jones, 2019;Diamond and Ling, 2019). Beginning in early childhood, these foundational skills support the emergence and growth of more complex skills and competencies. ...
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This paper reports results from an impact study of Brain Games (BGs), a classroom-based intervention designed to build preschool and school-aged children’s executive functions (EFs) and related self-regulation skills. The study employed a classroom-randomized, experimental design with 626 students in 36 pre-K through fourth grade classrooms in charter schools in a mid-sized urban district. In one set of models with child covariates, children in intervention classrooms showed marginal positive impacts on regulation-related behaviors, attention control and impulsivity, and negative effects on global EF and marginal increases in discipline problems. A second set of models with a smaller sample and both child and classroom covariates included indicate positive impacts of BGs on global EFs, prosocial behavior, and attention control and impulsivity. There were no significant impacts on the teacher–student relationship as reported by the teacher or on direct assessments of inhibitory control, short term and working memory, or another measure of global EF in either set of models. These promising findings offer a signal that implementation of targeted, easy to implement intervention approaches in classroom contexts can influence children’s regulation-related and prosocial outcomes, but this signal should be investigated further with larger and more tightly controlled designs.
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New findings from the neurosciences receive much interest for use in the applied field of education. For the past 15 years, neuroeducation and the application of neuroscience knowledge were seen to have promise, but there is presently some lack of progress. The present paper states that this is due to several factors. Neuromyths are still prevalent, and there is a confusion of tongues between the many neurodisciplines and the domains of behavioral and educational sciences. Second, a focus upon cognitive neuroimaging research has yielded findings that are scientifically relevant, but cannot be used for direct application in the classroom. A third factor pertains to the emphasis which has been on didactics and teaching, whereas the promise of neuroeducation for the teacher may lie more on pedagogical inspiration and support. This article states that the most important knowledge and insights have to do with the notion of brain plasticity; the vision that development is driven by an interaction between a person’s biology and the social system. This helps individuals to select and process information, and to adapt to the personal environment. The paper describes how brain maturation and neuropsychological development extend through the important period of adolescence and emergent adulthood. Over this long period, there is a major development of the Executive Functions (EFs) that are essential for both cognitive learning, social behavior and emotional processing and, eventually, personal growth. The paper describes the basic neuroscience knowledge and insights – or “neuroscientific literacy” – that the educational professional should have to understand and appreciate the above-described themes. The authors formulate a proposal for four themes of neuroscience content “that every teacher should know.” These four themes are based on the Neuroscience Core Concepts formulated by the Society for Neuroscience. The authors emphasize that integrating neuroscientific knowledge and insights in the field of education should not be a one-way street; attempts directed at improving neuroscientific literacy are a transdisciplinary undertaking. Teacher trainers, experts from the neuroscience fields but also behavioral scientists from applied fields (notable applied neuropsychologists) should all contribute to for the educational innovations needed.
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The current understanding of high intellectual ability (HIA) involves considering the multidimensional nature of the skills that comprise it. In addition, conceptual advances related to how individuals manage the high intellectual resources available to them may help explain the possible gap between performance and high levels of competence. Understanding the role of executive functioning and metacognition in relation to the management of these resources is essential. Nonetheless, to date, the trajectory of their study is diverse, and empirical and measured evidence in this regard is limited. Thus, the objective of this work was to understand the relationship between executive functions and metacognition (and its components), as well as the measurement of these factors and their reliability. The study sample comprised schoolchildren (n = 43) with an HIA and a control group (n = 46) of schoolchildren with typical intelligence levels. Network analysis revealed differential intergroup connections between the executive functioning components as well as between those of metacognition and for each construct. The greatest relational weight was for metacognition components, with the most robust relationship being found in the group with HIA with metacognitive regulation, flexibility, and verbal working memory versus metacognitive awareness and inhibition in the typical group. Measurement derivations and their application in educational interventions to optimise the expression of high potential are also discussed.
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