Executive functioning (EF) is key to students’ school and lifelong success and reflects both genetic predisposition and sensitivity to acute and chronic stress. Although certain levels of stress hormones are positively related to EF abilities, researchers have found that uncontrollable, persistent, and/or extreme stressors (e.g., abuse, neglect, poverty) that activate the body’s stress-response systems have an adverse effect on EF maturation. Yet, there is less available literature about the effects of more typical experiences within school environments and student EF development. Focusing on the effects of school-based stressors has particular value because they are potentially more malleable than home- or community-based stressors. Thus, the purpose of this systematic literature review is to better understand the relationships between school-based experiences and student EF development.
We conducted a systematic search of relevant databases, hand searched all journals that had more than one included article, and completed ancestral searches of all selected articles. We selected 24 articles published in peer-reviewed journals from 2000 to 2017 based on inclusion criteria: (a) participants aged 3-18, (b) measure of a school-based environmental/interpersonal factor as an independent variable, and (c) direct EF assessment as a dependent/mediator variable. The overall sample across studies was 16,553 students with a mean age of 6.7 years old.
Results indicated that schools where students felt unsafe were associated with lower student EF skills and gains, particularly for students with initial EF deficits (e.g., t(271) = 2.51, p < .01; Raver et al., 2013). Classroom quality (e.g., emotional support, instructional support) had a significant effect on EF maturation, yet results were complex, with effects more pronounced for students with weaker initial EF (e.g., b = .20, p < .05; Cohen’s d = .14 for children in 75th %ile for EF skills, compared to .37 for children in 25th %ile; Choi et al., 2016) or if placed in highly supportive or unsupportive classrooms. Individual teacher and student conflict was adversely associated with student EF development (e.g., ß = -.05 to - .08; Bailey et al., 2016), while closeness was associated with gains (e.g., ß = 0.18; Cadima et al., 2016). Additionally, peer problems had an adverse effect on EF, particularly in elementary school (e.g., β = -0.14; Holmes et al., 2016).
School-based sources of stress may not only play key roles in students’ EF maturation, but also may serve as important prevention and intervention areas during critical EF developmental periods. We will address implications for prevention practices and policies at the school and district levels, as well as future research.