Loyola University Maryland

Emerging Scholars

Emily C. Mariotti, Sharon Green-Hennessy, Ph.D.

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Are Executive Functioning and Social Skills Predictive of Retention in Kindergarten?

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The rate of kindergarten students being retained in kindergarten is twice the rate of students being held back across elementary school students (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014). Retention in kindergarten is associated with underdeveloped school readiness, which is comprised of social, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive skills necessary for successful functioning in school (Willis & Dinehart, 2014). Social elements of underdeveloped school readiness in kindergarten children are lack of appropriate turn-taking behavior, problem-solving strategies with peers, and use of aggression to express negative emotions. In part, such underdeveloped social behaviors have led to teachers’ decisions to withhold them from entering the next grade level until they are able to demonstrate socially appropriate behaviors (Bowman, 2005; Burkam et al., 2007). The child then experiences a failure to move on with his or her first formal schooling peer group to the next level of education and socialization. It may be advantageous to step back and examine potential underpinnings of poor social performance, such as the role of executive functioning facets, specifically cognitive flexibility and working memory, in the development of social skills.

The present study will analyze data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-K:2011) (reference for data set), a nationally representative sample of children being followed from kindergarten to fifth grade, which is sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics within the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education. Participants included target children entering kindergarten; target children’s parents, teachers and school administrators, and before-and-after school care providers. Cognitive flexibility and working memory are the two executive functioning variables I will examine. Cognitive flexibility is instrumental in shifting tasks, demands and mental sets (Rothlisberger, Neuenschwander, Cimeli, Michel, & Roebers, 2011), and aids in the production and regulation of social behaviors when shifting from different social demands and navigating novel social situations (Ciairano, Bonino, & Miceli, 2006). Working memory, as defined by Molfese et al. (2010), is the facility to mentally store relevant information and use the information as needed to guide behaviors in ongoing or future situations. This proposal will examine if cognitive flexibility and working memory reveal a more fundamental understanding of the social skills piece that connects executive functioning to school readiness, and subsequently, retention rates in kindergarten. Early social skills intervention at the executive functioning level may yield better outcomes in kindergarten, eliminating the need for retention. It is predicted that:

  1. There will be a relation between kindergarten children’s cognitive flexibility and teacher/parent reports of children’s ability to interact with others in kindergarten, such that cognitive flexibility, as measured by scores on the Dimensional Card Change Sort task, will be positively associated with teacher reports of the child’s ability to interact with others in kindergarten, as measured by teacher/parent questionnaires (developed by ECLS investigators from previous cohorts) of target child’s socioemotional development.  
  2. There will be a relation between kindergarten children’s working memory and teacher/parent reports of ability to listen and cooperate, such that working memory, as measured by the Numbers Reversed task on the WJ III Cog, will be positively associated with teacher/parent reports of the child’s positive behaviors, specifically the ability to listen and cooperate, as measured by teacher/parent questionnaires (developed by ECLS investigators from previous cohorts) of target child’s socioemotional development. 
  3. There will be a relation between executive functioning, social skills, and kindergarten retention, such that social skills proficiency, as measured by teacher/parent reports, will mediate the relation between executive functioning skills (e.g., cognitive flexibility and working memory), as measured by standardized test measures, and retention in kindergarten.