McClelland, M. M., Leve, L. D., & Pears, K. C. (2016). Preschool executive functions in the context of family risk. In J. A. Griffin, L. S. Freund, & P. McCardle (Eds.), Executive function in preschool age children: Integrating measurement, neurodevelopment and translational research (pp. 241–257). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Abstract: The transition from preschool to formal schooling is an exciting and important milestone for young children. Although many young children navigate this transition with ease, a substantial group of children experience difficulty with the demands of more structured school settings compared to relatively less structured preschool classrooms (McClelland, Morrison, & Holmes, 2000; Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta, & Cox, 2000). This issue has garnered enormous attention as parents, teachers, and policy-makers strive to help children appropriately manage their thoughts, feelings, and behavior while navigating increasingly demanding academic environments. Recently, children’s executive function has been identified as key to the development of these skills and to a successful transition to formal schooling. Laying the foundation for strong executive function is important for a range of children’s outcomes, including social and academic success (McClelland, Acock, & Morrison, 2006; Moffitt et al., 2011) . Of significant concern is research documenting that many young children and especially those growing up in the context of family risk, lack strong executive function and start school significantly behind their peers (Evans & Rosenbaum, 2008; Lengua, 2009; Mistry, Benner, Biesanz, Clark, & Howes, 2010; Sektnan, McClelland, Acock, & Morrison, 2010) . In this chapter, we discuss the importance of early executive function for children experiencing family and contextual risk. We first discuss conceptual issues including the components of executive function (cognitive or attentional flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control) which are especially relevant for academic achievement from childhood to early adulthood. We next review research highlighting how growing up in the context of risk, including contextual, familial, prenatal, or genetic risk, can impede the development of executive function. We then discuss recent studies documenting the compensatory effects of strong executive function for children experiencing early risk, including such adverse environmental contexts as economic adversity or maltreatment and placement in foster care. Finally, we conclude with suggestions regarding future research directions.