How do we become capable of resisting impulses, staying on task, and achieving the goals we set for ourselves? The ability to engage in goal-directed behavior develops dramatically in childhood, and depends on cognitive skills termed executive functions. Executive functions predict foundational academic skills in childhood, and success on a range of indicators in adulthood. As such, there is great interest in developing effective interventions to improve executive functions in children who struggle with them, and in targeting executive functions in interventions designed to improve children's academic skills. Gaining insight into how executive functions develop is key to this goal. In this talk, Doebel presents her research leveraging developmental theories and experimental, meta-analytic, and individual differences methods to examine the role of social processes in the development of executive functions. Children learn to engage executive functions while immersed in rich social environments with peers and adults talking to and influencing them. Doebel shows that different kinds of linguistic input predict and support the engagement of executive functions, both in the moment and in the longer-term. Language also appears to support proactive control, the engagement of executive functions in preparation for needing to use them. She also shows that social norms and values may influence developing executive functions, and discusses her ongoing work testing the influence of group behavior on children's ability to delay gratification. Taken together, Doebel's findings suggest social processes may be critical to the development of executive functions, and should be targeted in interventions to improve them and related skills. Doebel concludes by briefly discussing her future research plans to expand on this work by testing mechanisms, duration of effects, and transfer to key cognitive domains like mathematics and early literacy. This research has the promise to advance knowledge on the nature of executive functions and how best to target them in interventions that aim to close the achievement gap.

 

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