The development of executive function in early childhood

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Stuart Marcovitch, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Psychology (Creator)
Janet J. Boseovski, Associate Professor (Contributor)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
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Abstract: According to the Cognitive Complexity and Control (CCC) theory, the development of executive function can be understood in terms of age-related increases in the maximum complexity of the rules children can formulate and use when solving problems. This Monograph describes four studies (9 experiments) designed to test hypotheses derived from the CCC theory and from alternative theoretical perspectives on the development of executive function (memory accounts, inhibition accounts, and redescription accounts). Each study employed a version of the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS), in which children are required first to sort cards by one pair of rules (e.g., color rules: "If red then here, if blue then there"), and then sort the same cards by another, incompatible pair of rules (e.g., shape rules). Study 1 found that although most 3- to 4-year-olds failed the standard version of this task (i.e., they perseverated on the preswitch rules during the postswitch phase), they usually performed well when they were required to use four rules (including bidimensional rules) and those rules were not in conflict (i.e., they did not require children to respond in two different ways to the same test card). These findings indicate that children's perseveration cannot be attributed in a straightforward fashion to limitations in children's memory capacity. Study 2 examined the circumstances in which children can use conflicting rules. Three experiments demonstrated effects of rule dimensionality (uni- vs. bidimensional rules) but no effects of stimulus characteristics (1 vs. 2 test cards; spatially integrated vs. separated stimuli). Taken together, these studies suggest that conflict among rules is a key determinant of difficulty, but that conflict interacts with dimensionality. Study 3 examined what types of conflict pose problems for 3- to 4-yearolds by comparing performance on standard, Partial Change, and Total Change versions of the DCCS. Results revealed effects of conflict at the level of specific rules (e.g., "If red, then there"), rather than specific stimulus configurations or dimensions per se, indicating that activation of the preswitch rules persists into the postswitch phase. Study 4 examined whether negative priming also contributes to difficulty on the DCCS. Two experiments suggested that the active selection of preswitch rules against a competing alternative results in the lasting suppression of the alternative. Taken together, the results of these studies provide the basis for a revision of the CCC theory (CCC-r) that specifies more clearly the circumstances in which children will have difficulty using rules at various levels of complexity, provides a more detailed account of how to determine the complexity of rules required in a task, takes account of both the activation and inhibition of rules as a function of experience, and highlights the importance of taking intentionality seriously in the study of executive function.

Additional Information

Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 68(3), Serial No. 274
Language: English
Date: 2003
executive function, early childhood, Cognitive Complexity and Control

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