From terrible twos to sassy sixes: The development of vocabulary and executive functioning across early childhood

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Across the early childhood period of development, young children exhibit considerable growth in their executive functioning (EF) and vocabulary abilities. Understanding the developmental trajectory of these seemingly interrelated processes is important as both early vocabulary and EF have been shown to predict critical academic and socio-emotional outcomes later in childhood. Although previous research suggests that EF and vocabulary are correlated in early childhood, much of the existing longitudinal research has focused on unidirectional relations among preschool child samples. The current large-scale study, therefore, sought to examine whether children's vocabulary and EF abilities are bidirectionally related over time across four measurement waves in early childhood (i.e., at ages 2, 3, 4, and 6). At each timepoint, children's vocabulary skills were positively correlated with their concurrent EF abilities. After controlling for child sex and maternal education status, the best-fitting, cross-lagged panel model was a unidirectional model whereby children's early vocabulary scores predicted their later EF performance at each timepoint. Although age 2 EF significantly predicted age 3 vocabulary size, this association was no longer significant after accounting for maternal education status. Our results illustrate that vocabulary size plays an important role in predicting children's later EF performance across various timepoints in early childhood, even after controlling for children's initial EF scores. These findings have important implications for intervention research as fostering early vocabulary acquisition may serve as a possible avenue for improving EF outcomes in young children.



cross-lagged panel model, development, early childhood, executive functions, longitudinal, vocabulary