New grant examines early academic difficulties of children with disabilities

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Children with disabilities often struggle in mathematics and science, which can limit their educational and career opportunities. In a new Penn State project, researchers will investigate whether executive functions help explain these children’s academic difficulties.

According to Paul Morgan, principal investigator on the project and professor in the department of education policy studies at Penn State, the National Science Foundation-funded project will help inform efforts to boost the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, learning of children with disabilities.

“We will investigate whether and to what extent deficits in executive functions are related to lower mathematics and science achievement of children with or at risk for disabilities, which should help clarify whether these deficits are potential targets for early interventions,” said Morgan.

Executive functions (EF) are a set of cognitive processes that help you accomplish tasks. “It’s like the air traffic controller for your brain, helping to organize and regulate your goal-oriented behaviors,” Morgan explained.

Children with disabilities often have deficits in EF, which may be interfering with their classroom learning and behavior. Yet not much is known about whether these deficits should be included in early STEM interventions. “Prior research mostly focused on preschool-aged children without disabilities. This project advances knowledge by examining whether executive functions are related to early difficulties in STEM learning during elementary school, particularly by children with or at risk for disabilities” Morgan said.

The researchers will use newly available data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort of 2011. The study follows about 10,000 US schoolchildren from kindergarten entry in 2010 until the end of fifth grade. Morgan and his team will look at individual-level data that includes measures of children’s mathematics and science achievement, classroom behaviors, family economic resources, and many other factors.

His research team will focus on examining how three specific types of EF—working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control—are related to children’s STEM learning.

Working memory is how well children can hold and manipulate information during a brief time. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to shift attention, follow new procedures, and adapt responses using new information. Inhibitory control is how well children can delay an initial behavioral response while remaining goal-oriented. "These cognitive processes develop over time, but are also thought to be influenced by children’s early environments, including exposure to poverty, chaotic or chronically stressful home environments, and other neurological risk factors,” said Morgan.

In preliminary analyses, Morgan and his team found that EF deficits by kindergarten increase children’s risk for reading and mathematics difficulties by first grade, even with controls for many other factors including prior achievement, behavior, and economic background. By extending these analyses to mathematics and science achievement more generally, as well as how EF deficits may be contributing to disabled children’s academic difficulties specifically, the project should provide important new information for helping increase early STEM learning. “If we can discover how EF deficits, disabilities, and STEM learning inter-relate, particularly early on in school, we may be able to better help children with disabilities by improving the effectiveness of our intervention efforts,” Morgan said. 

Morgan also directs the Center for Educational Disparities Research (CEDR), which was jointly established by Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute and the College of Education this year. CEDR provides a support system for education-focused research, and was instrumental in obtaining funding for this project.

Other researchers on the project are Marianne Hillemeier, professor and department head of health policy and administration at Penn State, and George Farkas, professor of education at the University of California, Irvine.

Last Updated September 08, 2016