Psychology, Department of


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Dev Psychol. 2013 August ; 49(8): 1481–1493. doi:10.1037/a0030578.


HHS Public Access.


Despite acknowledgement of the importance of executive control for learning and behavior, there is a dearth of research charting its developmental trajectory as it unfolds against the background of children’s sociofamilial milieus. Using a prospective, cohort-sequential design, this study describes growth trajectories for inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility across the preschool period in relation to child sex and sociofamilial resources. At ages 3, 3.75, 4.5, and 5.25 years, children (N = 388) from a broad range of social backgrounds were assessed using the Shape School, a graduated measure of executive control incorporating baseline, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility conditions. Measures of children’s proximal access to learning resources and social network supports were collected at study entry. Findings revealed substantial gains in accuracy and speed for all Shape School conditions, these gains being particularly accelerated between ages 3 and 3.75 years. Improvements in inhibitory control were more rapid than those in flexible switching. Age-related differences in error and self-correction patterns on the Shape School also suggest qualitative changes in the underlying processes supporting executive performance across early childhood. Children from homes with fewer learning resources showed a subtle lag in inhibition and cognitive flexibility performance that persisted at kindergarten entry age, despite exhibiting gradual catch up to their more advantaged peers for the nonexecutive, baseline task condition. The study provides a unique characterization of the early developmental pathways for inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility and highlights the critical role of stimulating early educational resources for shaping the dynamic ontogeny of executive control.

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