Gaining control: Changing relations between executive control and processing speed and their relevance for mathematics achievement over course of the preschool period

Caron A.C. Clark, Jennifer Mize Nelson, John Garza, Tiffany D. Sheffield, Sandra A. Wiebe, Kimberly Andrews Espy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

25 Scopus citations


Early executive control (EC) predicts a range of academic outcomes and shows particularly strong associations with children's mathematics achievement. Nonetheless, a major challenge for EC research lies in distinguishing EC from related cognitive constructs that also are linked to achievement outcomes. Developmental cascade models suggest that children's information processing speed is a driving mechanism in cognitive development that supports gains in working memory, inhibitory control and associated cognitive abilities. Accordingly, individual differences in early executive task performance and their relation to mathematics may reflect, at least in part, underlying variation in children's processing speed. The aims of this study were to: (1) examine the degree of overlap between EC and processing speed at different preschool age points; and (2) determine whether EC uniquely predicts children's mathematics achievement after accounting for individual differences in processing speed. As part of a longitudinal, cohort-sequential study, 388 children (50% boys; 44% from low income households) completed the same battery of EC tasks at ages 3, 3.75, 4.5, and 5.25 years. Several of the tasks incorporated baseline speeded naming conditions with minimal EC demands. Multidimensional latent models were used to isolate the variance in executive task performance that did not overlap with baseline processing speed, covarying for child language proficiency. Models for separate age points showed that, while EC did not form a coherent latent factor independent of processing speed at age 3 years, it did emerge as a distinct factor by age 5.25. Although EC at age 3 showed no distinct relation with mathematics achievement independent of processing speed, EC at ages 3.75, 4.5, and 5.25 showed independent, prospective links with mathematics achievement. Findings suggest that EC and processing speed are tightly intertwined in early childhood. As EC becomes progressively decoupled from processing speed with age, it begins to take on unique, discriminative importance for children's mathematics achievement.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberArticle 107
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberFEB
StatePublished - Mar 10 2014



  • Academic achievement
  • Executive function
  • Mathematics
  • Preschool
  • Processing speed

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)

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