Self-regulatory capacities are pivotal for academic achievement in elementary school, particularly regarding mathematics. However, different aspects of self-regulation (originating from different research traditions) have mostly been investigated separately from one another.

The present longitudinal study SELMA 3 simultaneously focused on executive functioning (EF, i.e., higher-order cognitive processes) and self-control capacity (i.e., the ability to bring one’s behavior in line with long-term goals, even though they might conflict with immediate impulses).

First, we aimed at disentangling the relationship between both constructs. We suggested that children with better EF would tend to show higher self-control capacity. Second, we aimed at investigating the distinct and joint contributions of EF and self-control capacity on children’s mathematics achievement. EF has been shown to be directly relevant to the solution of mathematics problems (Bull & Lee, 2014). Regarding self-control, students with higher self-control capacity are believed to use learning opportunities more efficiently. Therefore, we suggested that both EF and self-control capacity directly contribute to children’s mathematics achievement. Moreover, we expected an indirect contribution of children’s EF to their mathematics achievement through their self-control capacity.

Participants of the study were third-graders from the city of Leipzig. As suggested, both EF (specifically the working memory component) and mathematics self-concept contributed to children’s self-control in the context of mathematics instruction. Both working memory and self-control predicted children’s later mathematics performance, controlling for prior performance. Findings of this study show that EF and self-control are distinct skills and support conceptualizations of EF as the cognitive foundation of self-control. Programs designed to improve children’s self-regulative skills in order to facilitate their mathematics performance should therefore take into account both EF, particularly working memory,  and self-control in the context of mathematics instructions. Moreover, mathematics teachers should be aware of children’s individual strengths and difficulties with regard to both skills in order to tailor instructional support and materials to every student’s needs. Future studies should continue to investigate the specific role of the EF components of inhibitory control and attention shifting in facilitating academic performance.

Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG)