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What is Special Education?
1. 1. You can use the terms disability and handicap interchangeably. T/F
2. 2. The history
of special education began in Europe. T/F
students with disabilities was passed in the 1950s.
• Compare and contrast core executive-function processes.
4. 4. All students with disabilities should be educated in special education classrooms. T/F
• Describe common measurements of core executive-function processes and evaluate how results of the mea5. 5. Special education law is constantly reinterpreted. T/F
surements are interpreted.
at the end
of the chapter.
• Explain how prefrontal and ventral striatum neural regions are associated with executive functions in emotional contexts.
• Articulate how different factors influence young children’s willingness to delay gratification.
• Connect efforts to train executive functions in children to relevant theories and findings.
1. Children play a game in which they say “day” whenever they see a picture of the moon
and “night” whenever they see a picture of the sun. Children cannot succeed on this task
until they begin formal schooling around age 6 or 7. T/F
2. The inattentiveness of children diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
is solely a deficit in attention and is unrelated to other cognitive processes such as
3. By adolescence, the brain is still maturing, which may explain why adolescents engage in
risk-taking more than younger children and adults. T/F
4. Young children find it easiest to delay gratification when they attend to a reward and are
reminded why the reward is worth waiting for. T/F
5. There is evidence that practice can help improve children’s memory, but it is
inconclusive whether the positive effects are long lasting. T/F
Mr. Gupta, a preschool teacher, has been recently hired to lead a classroom of 3- and 4-year-old
children. Nothing he learned in his education up to this point prepared him for setting up a classroom by himself. As he considers how to arrange the classroom in anticipation of the school year
beginning, he recalls conflicting advice and material learned in classes.
Gupta remembers from one of his early childhood education courses that the quality of the surrounding environment can impact learning. One experienced teacher told him that children love
a brightly colored room with lots of decorations, posters, and charts on the walls. Classrooms
should feel safe and inviting, since this can also impact learning. Another told him to make sure
the room was free of clutter and decoration. Gupta realizes both recommendations probably
cannot be met—a classroom that has a lot of wall decorations and other materials will also tend
to be cluttered. He also wonders if he interpreted this correctly. Ideally, he would like to have a
bright but organized room.
Gupta also wonders if he should allow children to sit where they prefer. Should he assign seating
during activities that require concentration and attention? He has learned that children should
be encouraged to have freedom and self-control—does this freedom include choosing seating
He is also trying to decide how to reward good behaviors like paying attention to the teacher.
He is considering placing an attractive reward—such as stickers or a small treat—in the front
of the room each day to remind children that they will be rewarded for good behavior. While the
visibility of the reward could serve as a reminder to children, it might also pose a distraction. He
is unsure which alternative is better.
Questions to Think About
1. How does the classroom environment impact learning? What factors must a teacher
consider to optimize learning?
2. Are 3- and 4-year-olds capable of making good seating-arrangement decisions? How
much control should children have in the classroom? What are some of the pros and
cons of too much or too little control for this age group?
3. Rewards need to be used cautiously and appropriately. What reward system is best
for increasing positive behaviors? What part of the brain responds to rewards?
4. What strategies can be used to keep a room clean and organized yet also appropriate
for the students’ age?
In 1972 researchers in New Zealand initiated a long-term study assessing more than 1,000
individuals during infancy and at various points thereafter (Moffitt et al., 2011). Central to
the investigation was identifying whether cognitive differences in childhood predicted health
and criminal outcomes in adulthood. The general idea was to see if early predictors can help
prevent later difficulties.
By the time participants were 32 years old, some had been convicted of crimes. Others had
developed cardiovascular problems, substance dependencies, and/or other health-related
concerns. The researchers found that self-control was an important childhood predictor of
these poor outcomes. Measurements of self-control included ratings by parents and teachers of children’s impulsive and inattentive behaviors. The predictive role of self-control was
evident even after accounting for differences in the children’s socioeconomic status and intelligence (Moffitt et al., 2011).
Specifically, 11-year-olds who had difficulty paying attention, persisting when challenged,
and refraining from acting impulsively were at risk for the variety of negative outcomes listed
above. Why? One reason is that poor self-control in childhood was associated with harmful
lifestyle choices in adolescence (a developmental period defined by this book as roughly ages
13 to 18). Adolescents who smoke, drop out of school, and in general make poor choices place
themselves at risk for later problems in adulthood.
These important findings raise many questions relevant to this chapter. What exactly is selfcontrol? Is it composed of a single cognitive factor, or is it the product of many interacting
cognitive factors? Can children’s self-control improve through cognitive training and parental
efforts? Although the New Zealand study informs us about the effects of poor self-control, it
does not tell us anything about the underlying processes that cause self-control to develop
in the first place. This chapter will examine contemporary theories and research providing
insight into these questions.
Core Themes and Executive Functioning
The study of executive functions draws from IP theory. Remember from Chapter 1 that IP
theory views the mind as computer-like in that information enters the system, is processed,
and then is stored. This model of the mind is closely tied to the operation of executive functions. Executive functions first impact incoming information by influencing what enters the
cognitive system and what is ignored. Executive functions then coordinate and regulate information once it enters the system.
In IP theory, cognitive processes have a domain-general influence, and their development is
continuous rather than stage-like. Notice how the research findings described at the beginning of this chapter illustrate both of these themes of our text. The impact of self-control was
Executive Functions: Introduction
far-reaching (evidence of a domain-general impact). Moreover, the qualities that define selfcontrol (persistence and attention) are the same (continuous) from childhood onward. In
addition, individual differences in self-control exhibited a degree of stability over time (Moffitt et al., 2011), demonstrating idiographic continuity.
The two other themes also recur in this chapter. First, the nature–nurture theme is evident
in the influence of both neurological development and the environment on executive functions. Second, IP theory approaches the study of cognition through careful analysis of a task’s
demands. How a child performs on the task indicates the developmental strength of the cognitive process needed to successfully meet the task’s demands. We will carefully describe
some common executive-function assessments in this chapter. The performance–competence
theme is evident as we point out how particular performance demands of a task relate to specific executive-functioning processes.
3.1 Executive Functions: Introduction
Self-control in the New Zealand study was defined by behaviors like persistence, attention,
and impulse control. Psychologists group these and other related processes under the term
executive functions (EFs). EFs are a set of cognitive processes that regulate thought and
behavior in the service of attaining a goal (Diamond, 2013). EFs operate like a traffic cop at
a busy intersection, flexibly directing the flow of information, often simultaneously blocking
one stream of information while permitting another stream to advance. EF development is
associated with the maturation of the prefrontal cortex, the anterior (front) portion of the
frontal lobe of the brain (see Figure 3.1).
Figure 3.1: The human brain and the executive functions
The prefrontal cortex is located in the frontal lobe of the brain and is related to executive function
development. The ventral striatum in the limbic region is associated with processing information
related to rewards.
Executive Functions: Introduction
Executive functions are crucial for successfully handling everyday situations in which distractions, mind wandering, and temptations have to be resisted. They provide a foundation for
academic success. For example, a beginning reader commonly errs by skipping a word or line
of text. The ability to pay close attention and concentrate on the text rather than on noises and
other distractions enables the child to minimize these types of errors.
Executive functions are generally characterized as a related set of processes. In the next section, we describe the nature of these processes and their interrelatedness. Before we begin,
some key findings of EF development that are often supported in the research literature are
presented in the following list.
1. Components of executive functions are moderately interrelated. They appear to
share an underlying structure, but the components are also distinct from one
another. EF components are both unified and diverse.
2. The development of executive functions has broad, domain-general implications. EFs
are associated with a variety of academic and behavioral outcomes.
3. Individual differences in executive functions exhibit a degree of stability during
development. Thus, children who lag in EF development tend to remain behind in
subsequent years. However, EFs may also be sensitive to environmental influences
and consequently subject to improvement with intervention.
4. Maturation in regions of the prefrontal cortex is closely associated with the development of executive functions.
5. Executive functions often undergo rapid development in early childhood (roughly
ages 3 to 7). Development during later periods continues but generally at a more
gradual pace (Best & Miller, 2010; Diamond, 2013; Miyake & Friedman, 2012).
Core Executive-Function Processes
For many children, homework is a weeknight ritual. Some nights the complexity and quantity
of certain assignments pose significant challenges. The executive functions are crucial for
meeting homework demands, since they regulate and coordinate the child’s cognitive efforts.
Without the executive functions, students would be unable to concentrate and would simply
respond to whatever distracting sounds or stimuli were present in the environment at any
given moment. For any homework children complete, they have likely had to filter out some
competing demands, whether incoming text messages, a television show in the next room, or
nearby conversations between family members.
It takes a number of cognitive processes working in a coordinated fashion to ignore distractions and produce self-regulated, goal-directed thought. What precisely are the cognitive components that underlie our ability to concentrate and think deeply and attentively?
Most researchers regard working memory, inhibitory control, and set shifting as three core
processes of executive functioning (Diamond, 2013). Many also regard attention as a key construct that underlies and unifies these three components. We introduce these processes in
this section and describe their measurement and development in Section 3.2.
Working memory is the process of holding task-related information in mind while performing a task. If you change your computer password and look for a notepad to write it down, you
are using working memory to keep in mind the password while you find a pad.
Executive Functions: Introduction
Inhibitory control involves suppressing information, thoughts, and/or actions that interfere
with a goal. When children play Simon Says, they get used to obeying the leader’s commands.
Inhibitory control is necessary when the leader omits “Simon says” while commanding children to “jump up and down.”
Note how working memory and inhibitory control are related in the Simon Says game. Children must actively maintain the game’s rules in working memory (for example, “Act only if I
hear ‘Simon says’”) in order to successfully inhibit a response.
Set shifting involves flexibly switching attention from one task-related dimension or rule to
another. Switching attention is accompanied by making a new response. The A-not-B error
described in Chapter 2 is a type of set-shifting problem. The infant’s attention is first directed
toward location A because that is where the toy is repeatedly hidden. When the toy is relocated, the infant must exhibit flexibility and switch attention to the new location. The change
in attention guides the accurate response of searching in the new location (B). Note again the
apparent interrelatedness of the EF processes. As we indicated in Chapter 2, the A-not-B error
also involves memory (remembering the most recent hiding place) and inhibition (suppressing the practiced motor action of reaching for location A).
Attention supports these three core EF processes. Attention is, broadly speaking, a system
that maintains alertness, directs our sensory system in response to stimuli, and regulates
thoughts and feelings (Posner, 2012).
To get a clearer picture of attention, we turn to the apt description written by William James
(1890), a founding figure in the scientific study of psychology:
It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out
of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.
Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies
withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is
a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained
state which in French is called distraction. (pp. 403–404)
James’s vivid description highlights two features of attention that support executive functioning. One is the ability to focus on a task by filtering out distracting information. This capacity
is termed executive attention (Petersen & Posner, 2012). Executive attention is an attentional system that handles and regulates conflicting information so that some information is
processed while other information is suppressed or ignored.
When a child is listening to a teacher and also hears laughter in the school hallway, the two
conflicting sources of information—the teacher’s instruction and the peers’ laughter—have
to be handled so that one is suppressed and the other is the object of focus. When conflict
occurs, executive attention is the system responsible for regulating and controlling the child’s
cognitive focus (toward the teacher in this particular instance).
Executive Functions: Introduction
A second feature of attention involves concentration and sustaining an effortful task-related
focus. Maintaining a concentrated focus over time draws on the process of sustained attention (Betts, Mckay, Maruff, & Anderson, 2006; see also Petersen & Posner, 2012). Sustained
attention is the ability to achieve a state of readiness and maintain that state of arousal; it is
like the engine that fuels the child’s efforts. Executive attention is like the engine driver steering those efforts toward the task requirements and away from distraction.
Real-World Application: Executive Function and School
The executive functions are linked to academic achievement (Best, Miller, & Naglieri, 2011).
Take a moment and imagine the ideal student. What distinguishes him or her from the struggling student? Consider the role played by executive attention, working memory, sustained
attention, inhibitory control, and set shifting. Then follow the web link below to read practical
examples of how executive functions relate to school readiness in young children.
How do the instructional demands on executive functions increase from preschool to
The Structure of Executive Functions
The previous section identified core EF processes. In this section, we address how the processes are interrelated. This has been the focus of a great deal of research, because if the
executive functions are related to one another, then deficiencies in one executive function can
impact the other executive functions. For instance, efforts to help the child resist the impulse
to talk out of turn might also need to account for how
working memory and attention support inhibition. If Question to Consider
a child is attentive to an instruction held in memory
(“Take turns playing the game!”), he or she may be more Imagine an everyday preschool activity
likely to hold an impulsive action in check.
for a 4-year-old, such as playing simple
When a variety of EF measurements are administered
to individuals, statistical analyses generally reveal that
core processes (working memory, set shifting, and inhibition) are moderately correlated to one another
(Miyake & Friedman, 2012). These interrelations
appear to emerge from a common underlying factor.
Because the strength of the interrelations is only moderate, each process is also relatively distinct from the
others, as shown in Figure 3.2. In essence, the executive
functions are like a family in that the individual members are related and form a unit; however, each member
of the family is also unique.
counting games with a teacher and peers.
As you imagine creating an informal
counting game, how does each component
of the executive function help the child
successfully engage in the activity? For
instance, which EF component would be
especially relevant in helping the child
sort numerals into even and odd piles and
then sort them again by magnitude (for
example, into categories above and below
the number 5)?
Development of the Executive Functions
Figure 3.2: A hypothetical model of the executive functions
The three core EF processes of working memory, inhibitory control, and set shifting are believed to be
interrelated and supported by attentional processes.
Source: Adapted from Garon, Bryson, & Smith, 2008; Miyake et al., 2000; Pellicano, 2012.
3.2 Development of the Executive Functions
In this section, we look at the measurement and development of the processes described in
the previous section. We carefully focus on task measurements in this section because the
tasks illustrate precisely how we define EF processes. A brief overview of common childhood