Development and Assessment of Individual Differences in Executive Function in the First Years of Life

Early individual differences in executive function (EF) skills are predictive of a range of developmental outcomes. However, most studies investigate EF in children aged three years and older, and much less is known about EF development in younger children. In this talk, I will first present recent results from a longitudinal cohort study on the predictive value of an assessment battery measuring EF in two-year-olds for emerging academic skills at age five years. The battery includes measures of selective attention, which is considered a core building block of EF, working memory, and self-control (delay of gratification). In the second part of the talk, I will discuss three interconnected research projects in which we aimed to improve our understanding of the underlying processes and experiences contributing to the development of each of these skills in very young children. In study 1, the influence of infant walking experience on selective attention development was investigated in 14-month olds. In study 2, visual attention strategies underlying reaching behaviour on a working memory task were studied in infants of the same age, using head-mounted eye tracking. In study 3, we investigated the clever attention and motor strategies two- and three-year-olds use to facilitate self-control in a delayed gratification situation. Findings from these studies show that 1) effective executive function task performance is embodied in motor control strategies, including both eye movements and movement and direction of the rest of the body; 2) walking may provide a natural training opportunity for selective attention, with brief transient effects occurring in a specific developmental time window in infancy, close to the onset of walking attainment. The implications of these findings for the assessment of EF and design of interventions aimed at promoting EF in the first years of life will be discussed.