Does Preschool Executive Function Predict Social, Health and Behavioral Outcomes? A Meta-Analysis


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Executive function is a widely studied psychological construct proposed to play a key role in healthy development and success in life. In children, executive function is often measured using particular behavioral laboratory tasks. Performance on these tasks robustly correlates with academic-related outcomes, yet they have also been claimed to predict a variety of outcomes outside the classroom, such as social skills, externalizing behaviors, and physical health. The evidence for these latter claims is less clear. Here, I report a meta-analysis testing the relation between executive function measured in preschool, and social, health, and behavioral outcomes measured concurrently and in later childhood and adolescence. Findings from 20 meta-analyses are reported. There were 853 usable effect sizes across the 115 included studies. A total of 104,827 children (m age = 55.62 months, SD = 6.07 months; 48.75% female) were included. For concurrent social outcomes, preschool executive function was positively related to social competence, prosociality, peer acceptance, and emotion understanding and regulation. Effect magnitudes (expressed as r) ranged between 0.10 and 0.28, indicating small effects. For concurrent health outcomes, preschool executive function was negatively related to body mass indices (r = -0.15) but was not related to physical fitness. For concurrent behavioral outcomes, executive function was related to externalizing problems, lie understanding, adaptive classroom behaviors, and attention and hyperactivity symptoms, but not internalizing problems (rs between -0.04 to 0.25). Longitudinally, executive function was related to social competence, peer acceptance, adaptive classroom behaviors, externalizing problems, and attention and hyperactivity symptoms, but not prosociality, emotion understanding, or internalizing problems. Considering that few studies controlled for known covariates (e.g., verbal skills, age), we urge caution in interpreting these significant findings as support for the importance of executive function in social, health, and behavioral development over the lifespan. Future research can further explore these patterns to better understand the role of executive function in adaptive human functioning.