Bridging the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children: Why should we be concerned with executive functions in the South African context?

Author: Caroline Fitzpatrick

Research shows that child characteristics in kindergarten play an important role in determining their academic success and educational achievements. The effects of these characteristics can have a profound influence even into early adulthood. These characteristics include mathematics and reading skills.

However, executive function skills are also important predictors of later success, and may even be one of the most important factors. Executive function skills influence children’s ability to focus attention and become autonomous, self-directed learners; and they play a key role in later adjustment to school.

Educational and cognitive inequalities between children who grow up in poverty and their more affluent peers are evident early in life: By age 2.5, disadvantaged children have smaller vocabularies, perform more poorly on tests of general cognitive ability, and have lower scores on tasks that require executive function skills. These differences widen by the time children enter school, persist in the elementary school years, and take their biggest toll on high-school graduation rates.

 Research has shown that the process leading up to high-school dropout does not emerge in high school, but rather can be traced all the way back to kindergarten. Poor achievement and high-school dropout represent urgent social concerns in both developed and developing  countries.  In  particular,  poor  educational  achievement in a population is associated with reductions in a country’s human capital formation. On an individual basis, poor academic attainment undermines personal success, health, well-being, and ultimately reinvestment in society.

This paper proposes that increasing efforts towards promoting executive functions in preschool-aged children represents a promising strategy for reducing socio-economic differences in the education and eventual life chances between advantaged and disadvantaged children. These efforts could take the form of various interventions, some of which were discussed and evaluated in this paper.

Furthermore, a common general finding, which emerged from the evaluation of these interventions, is that they tend to be most beneficial for children considered at higher risk. Consequently, targeting executive functions appears especially promising for equalising inequalities in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged children.

The successful implementation of appropriate interventions may, therefore, represent our most promising strategy for reducing a number of expensive social problems including high-school dropout, unemployment, and involvement in crime; as well as improving the life and career chances of children at risk.

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