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Executive Function in Late Childhood and Adolescence: Cultural Contrasts, Correlates, and Consequences



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The capacity to resist temptations, think outside the box, mentally work with information, and make plans, referred to as executive function (EF), has fascinated developmental psychologists over the past few decades. The development of EF appears to be susceptible to environmental input and underpins a range of important outcomes, including but not limited to school readiness and academic learning. Unfortunately, the evidence is based almost exclusively on studies conducted in Western countries, with cross-cultural research being largely restricted in developmental scope to the preschool and early primary school years. Capitalising upon a large-scale study of 9- to 16-year-olds and their parents living in Hong Kong (n = 371; Mage = 12.21 years, SD = 0.99) and England (n = 487; Mage = 11.91 years, SD = 0.93), this thesis sought to extend the existing literature by recruiting a comparison group from mainland China (n = 453; Mage = 11.89 years, SD = 0.87) and by applying a latent variable modelling approach to examine (i) cultural contrasts in, (ii) correlates of, and (iii) consequences of EF in late childhood and adolescence. Both children and parents completed four computerised tests of EF (providing measures of inhibition, cognitive flexibility, working memory, and planning). Children also completed a short questionnaire booklet and a battery of tasks designed to measure numeracy, literacy, and general intelligence. To evaluate the role of mind-mindedness (defined as parents’ propensity to view their children as mental agents; e.g., Meins, 2013) in non-Western countries, 118 Chinese parents provided a 5-minute speech sample. The validity of applying the computerised EF-task battery in different cultural settings has been strengthened by tests of measurement invariance. Consistent with previous reports (e.g., Ellefson et al., 2017), the East Asian advantage in EF was developmentally persistent. Latent factor means were substantially lower for British children than their peers from either mainland China or Hong Kong, with a significant but smaller contrast between the latter two groups. In the mainland China site, self-reported computer use was unrelated to individual differences in children’s performance on online tests of EF, indicating that the observed between-country differences are unlikely to simply reflect peripheral effects of task modality. Particularly novel, variation in children’s EF accounted for the links between parental provision of structure and academic achievement in the Chinese sample on the one hand, and between parental autonomy support and academic achievement in the British sample on the other hand, suggesting that the relative salience of distinct aspects of parenting is culturally specific. Expanding a growing body of research into the sources of the learning gap between East Asia and the West, the current study revealed that contrasts in children’s EF and use of self-regulated learning strategies contributed to cross-cultural differences in academic achievement. Lastly, Chinese parents’ mind-mindedness (but not positivity) showed unique associations with children’s numeracy and literacy above and beyond both parent EF and child EF. Path analyses demonstrated that mind-mindedness served as a mechanism by which socioeconomic status shaped maths performance. The findings are discussed in terms of theoretical and practical implications for scholars and educational professionals.





Hughes, Claire


Executive function, Measurement Invariance, Academic achievement, Self-regulated learning, Parenting, Mind-mindedness, Cross-cultural differences, Preadolescence


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Economic and Social Research Council (ES/K010255/1)
United States Department of Education (R305A110932)
The author would like to acknowledge funding for this work from China Scholarship Council and a joint-council award from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong (ES/K010225/1). Initial development of the Thinking Games website was supported by the Institute of Educational Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A110932 to the University of Cambridge. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of the Institute of Educational Sciences or the U.S. Department of Education.