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Dev Sci. 2019 May 11:e12854. doi: 10.1111/desc.12854. [Epub ahead of print]

Challenging socioeconomic status: A cross-cultural comparison of early executive function.

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Early Start and School of Education, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW, Australia.
Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, Department of Human Biology, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa.
Department of Education, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom.
Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom.
MRC/Wits Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
MRC/Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit, School of Public Health, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Umeå Centre for Global Health Research, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden.
INDEPTH Network, Accra, Ghana.


The widely and internationally replicated socioeconomic status (SES) gradient of executive function (EF) implies that intervention approaches may do well to extrapolate conditions and practices from contexts that generate better child outcomes (in this case, higher SES circumstances) and translate these to contexts with comparatively poorer outcomes (often low-SES populations). Yet, can the reverse also be true? Using data from equivalent assessments of 1,092 pre-schoolers' EFs in South Africa and Australia, we evaluated: the SES gradient of EF within each sample; and whether this SES gradient extended cross-culturally. The oft-found EF-SES gradients were replicated in both samples. However, contrary to the inferences of EF-SES associations found nationally, the most highly disadvantaged South African subsample outperformed middle- and high-SES Australian pre-schoolers on two of three EFs. This suggests the possibility of EF-protective and -promotive practices within low- and middle-income countries that may aid understandings of the nature and promotion of EFs.


LMIC; SES; disadvantage; executive function; pre-school; socioeconomic status


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