The Development of Executive Function: Mechanisms of Change and Functional Pressures

Ibbotson, Paul (2023). The Development of Executive Function: Mechanisms of Change and Functional Pressures. Journal of Cognition and Development, 24(2) pp. 172–190.



This developmental account of executive function (EF) argues that domain-general analogical processes build a functional hierarchy of skills, which vary on a continuum of abstraction, and become increasingly differentiated over time. The paper begins by showing how a functional hierarchy can capture important aspects of EF development, including incrementalism, partial differentiation, and a shift from reactive to proactive control. It then details how children construct this hierarchy in development, by showing how they make functional analogies between similar EF problems, in a bottom-up incremental fashion. This results in EF structure which becomes differentiated into components which are more suited to solving some goal-directed problems than others. The developmental implications of this are that children eventually acquire task-general EFs while also retaining goal-specific skills sensitive to wider beliefs, values, norms, preferences, relevant motor, procedural, and embodied knowledge. There is discussion of how this approach is similar to and different from existing accounts, and how it relates to broader issues of training and transfer, group and individual differences, overlapping EF functions and domain-general learning. The developmental mechanisms advocated under this account intentionally draw on neuropsychological, learning and cognitive processes that have been demonstrated in other domains, so that EF theory can benefit from the lessons learned elsewhere and become more integrated with other areas of cognition.

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