Executive Functions and Science Achievement During the Five-to-Seven-Year Shift

Matthew H. Kim, Tracy E. Bousselot, Sammy F. Ahmed

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Executive functions (EF) are domain-general cognitive skills that predict foundational academic skills such as literacy and numeracy. However, less is known about the relation between EFs and science achievement. Thenature of this relation might be explained by the theory of mutualism, which states that development is theresult of complex and interacting processes, in which growth in one domain influences growth in another domain.The present study examined the bidirectional associations between science achievement and children’scognitive flexibility and working memory in a nationally representative sample of children in the United States(Early Childhood Longitudinal Study: Kindergarten Class of 2010-2011 [ECLS-K:2011]; N = 18,174). Usingrandom intercepts cross-lagged panel modeling, results revealed a heterogeneous pattern of associationsbetween EF and science achievement, consistent with mutualism theory. Trait-like and construct stabilityemerged in the between-person and within-person estimates of EF and science. Cognitive flexibility and workingmemory in kindergarten each predicted science achievement in first grade. Science achievement at the beginningof first grade predicted cognitive flexibility at the end of first grade. There were also bidirectionalassociations between working memory and science achievement from the beginning to the end of the firstgrade year. Although effect sizes were small, findings reveal the complex interplay between EF and scienceachievement during early childhood and highlight a core tenet of mutualism theory—that small gains in academicand cognitive domains are positively associated with future skills and abilities within and acrossdomains

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2119-2133
Number of pages15
JournalDevelopmental Psychology
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The preregistration plan, raw data, and analysis code associated with this study are available at https://osf.io/usy9h/. A previous version of this studywas preregistered at https://osf.io/snrce;we deviated from this plan basedon feedback we received on our analytic strategy

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021. American Psychological Association


  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Early childhood
  • Executive functions
  • Science achievement
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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