Making the Executive ‘Function’ for the Foundations of Mathematics: the Need for Explicit Theories of Change for Early Interventions

Publication Name

Educational Psychology Review


A vast body of work highlights executive functions (EFs) as robust correlates of mathematics achievement over the primary and preschool years. Yet, despite such correlational evidence, there is limited evidence that EF interventions yield improvements in early years mathematics. As intervention studies are a powerful tool to move beyond correlation to causality, failures of transfer from executive functions interventions are, we argue, highly problematic for both applied and theoretical reasons. We review the existing correlational and intervention literature at complementary neuroscientific, cognitive, developmental and educational levels. We appraise distinct theories of change underpinning the correlations between EF and early mathematics, as well as explicit or implicit theories of change for different types of EF interventions. We find that isolated EF interventions are less likely to transfer to improvements in mathematics than integrated interventions. Via this conceptual piece, we highlight that the field of EF development is in need of (1) a clearer framework for the mechanisms underpinning the relationships between early EF and other developing domains, such as mathematical cognition; (2) clearer putative theories of change for how interventions of different kinds operate in the context of EF and such domains; (3) and greater clarity on the developmental and educational contexts that influence these causal associations. Our synthesis of the evidence emphasises the need to consider the dynamic development of EFs with co-developing cognitive functions, such as early math skills, when designing education environments. [234 words].

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Article Number


Funding Sponsor

Nuffield Foundation



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