Executive function and pre-academic skills in preschoolers from South Africa
South African Journal of Childhood Education
Background: While there is now considerable evidence in support of a relationship between executive function (EF) and academic success, these findings almost uniformly derive from Western and high-income countries. Yet, recent findings from low-to middle-income countries have suggested that patterns of EF and academic skills differ in these contexts, but there is little clarity on the extent, direction and nature of their association. Aim: This study aimed to investigate the contribution of EF to pre-academic skills in a sample of preschool children (N = 124; Mage = 50.91 months; 45% female). Setting: Two preschools were recruited from an urban setting in a community with both formal and informal housing, overcrowding, high levels of crime and violence, and poor service delivery. Three preschools were recruited from rural communities with household plots, a slow rate of infrastructure development, reliance on open fires for cooking, limited access to running water and rudimentary sanitation. Methods: Pre-academic skills were assessed using the Herbst Early Childhood Development Criteria test, and EF was assessed using the Early Years Toolbox. Results: Although EF scores appeared high and pre-academic skills were low (in norm comparisons), EF inhibition (ß = 0.23, p = 0.001) and working memory (ß = 0.25, p < 0.001) nevertheless showed strong prediction of pre-academic skills while shifting was not significant. Conclusion: While EF is an important predictor of pre-academic skills even in this low-and middle-income country context, factors in addition to EF may be equally important targets to foster school readiness in these settings. Contribution: The current study represents a first step towards an understanding of the current strengths that can be leveraged, and opportunities for additional development, in the service of preparing all children for the demands of school.
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DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg