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Volume 22 Issue 2 (March 2019), Pages

The malleability of executive function in early childhood: Effects of schooling and targeted training

Abstract Executive function (EF), its importance for scholastic achievement and the question of whether or not EF is malleable, have become a topic of intense interest. Education or schooling is often seen as effective approaches to enhance EF due to the specific school‐related requirements as compared to kindergarten or pre‐school. However, no study to date has investigated whether targeted training focusing on those domains might be comparable with regular schooling in improving EF and fluid intelligence (Gf). The aim of the present study was to replicate and extend the previously demonstrated schooling effects on EF by using a school‐cutoff design, and to further investigate whether a theoretically motivated intervention targeting specific EF, i.e., working memory (WM) or inhibitory control (IC), could achieve comparable effects with schooling in both, WM and IC, as well as Gf. 91 6‐year‐old kindergarteners and first‐graders with similar chronological age participated the study. We compared the performance of a first‐grade schooling group with that of two kindergarten training groups as well as a business‐as‐usual kindergarten control group. Participants were assessed in WM, IC and Gf at baseline, immediately after the intervention (posttest), as well as 3 months after training completion (follow‐up). The results showed that the schooling group indeed outperformed the kindergarten groups at baseline in several cognitive tasks. Furthermore, both the WM and IC training showed pronounced gains in the trained tasks, as well as varying degrees of improvement in non‐trained outcome measures. Most importantly, both training groups achieved comparable performance with the schooling group, which was especially apparent in Gf at follow‐up. Our findings provide further evidence for the malleability of EF demonstrating that both, long‐term and short‐term interventions can facilitate the acquisition of those important skills, and as such, our work has important implications for educational practice.

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