Child Psychiatry & Human Development

, Volume 44, Issue 1, pp 105–122 | Cite as

Working Memory, Attention, Inhibition, and Their Relation to Adaptive Functioning and Behavioral/Emotional Symptoms in School-Aged Children

  • Virve Vuontela
  • Synnöve Carlson
  • Anna-Maria Troberg
  • Tuija Fontell
  • Petteri Simola
  • Suvi Saarinen
  • Eeva T. Aronen
Original Article


The present study investigated the development of executive functions (EFs) and their associations with performance and behavior at school in 8–12-year-old children. The EFs were measured by computer-based n-back, Continuous Performance and Go/Nogo tasks. School performance was evaluated by Teacher Report Form (TRF) and behavior by TRF and Child Behavior Checklist. The studied dimensions of EF were cognitive efficiency/speed, working memory/attention and inhibitory control. Strong age effects were found for these cognitive abilities (p values <0.01). Inhibitory control was associated with better adaptive functioning (learning, working hard and behaving well), academic performance and less psychiatric symptoms (p values <0.05), specially in 8–9-year-old children. In this youngest age group low inhibitory control was also associated with teacher-reported inattention (p = 0.042). Low inhibitory control was associated with teacher- and parent-reported internalizing symptoms (p < 0.01). These results suggest that maturational factors may underlie low adaptive functioning and psychiatric symptoms during early school years. Further studies are needed to evaluate the association between inhibition and emotional symptoms.


Executive function Development Adaptive functioning Behavioral/emotional symptoms 


  1. 1.
    Zelazo PD, Craik FIM, Booth L (2004) Executive function across the life span. Acta Psychol 115(2–3):167CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Baddeley A (1996) The fractionation of working memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci 93(24):13468–13472PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Armstrong C (1997) Selective versus sustained attention: a continuous performance test revisited. Clin Neuropsychol 11(1):18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Mirsky AF, Anthony BJ, Duncan CC, Ahearn MB, Kellam SG (1991) Analysis of the elements of attention: a neuropsychological approach. Neuropsychol Rev 2(2):109–145PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Riccio CA, Reynolds CR, Lowe P, Moore JJ (2002) The continuous performance test: a window on the neural substrates for attention? Arc Clin Neuropsych 17(3):235–272Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Barkley RA (1997) Behavioral inhibition, sustained attention, and executive functions: constructing a unifying theory of ADHD. Psychol Bull 121(1):65PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Friedman NP, Miyake A (2004) The relations among inhibition and interference control functions: a latent-variable analysis. J Exp Psych Gen 133(1):101–135CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Huizinga M, Dolan CV, van der Molen MW (2006) Age-related change in executive function: developmental trends and a latent variable analysis. Neuropsychologia 44(11):2017–2036PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Jurado M, Rosselli M (2007) The elusive nature of executive functions: a review of our current understanding. Neuropsychol Rev 17(3):213–233PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Smith EE, Jonides J (1999) Storage and executive processes in the frontal lobes. Science 283(5408):1657PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Miller EK, Cohen JD (2001) An integrative theory of prefrontal cortex function. Annu Rev Neurosci 24:167–202PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Casey BJ, Giedd JN, Thomas KM (2000) Structural and functional brain development and its relation to cognitive development. Biol Psychol 54(1–3):241–257PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Luna B, Padmanabhan A, O’Hearn K (2010) What has fMRI told us about the development of cognitive control through adolescence? Brain Cogn 72(1):101–113PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Hwang K, Velanova K, Luna B (2010) Strengthening of top-down frontal cognitive control networks underlying the development of inhibitory control: a functional magnetic resonance imaging effective connectivity study. J Neurosci 30(46):1535–1554CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Eisenberg N, Spinrad TL, Eggum ND (2010) Emotion related self-regulation and its relation to children’s maladfjustment. Annu Rev Clin Psychol 6:495–525PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Luna B, Garver KE, Urban TA, Lazar NA, Sweeney JA (2004) Maturation of cognitive processes from late childhood to adulthood. Child Dev 75(5):1357–1372PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Luciana M, Conklin HM, Hooper CJ, Yarger RS (2005) The development of nonverbal working memory and executive control processes in adolescents. Child Dev 76(3):697PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Henry LA (2001) How does the severity of a learning disability affect working memory performance? Memory 9(4):233CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Gioia GA, Isquith PK, Kenworthy L, Barton RM (2002) Profiles of everyday executive function in acquired and development disorders. Child Neuropsychol 8(2):121PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Verte S, Geurts HM, Roeyers H, Oosterlaan J, Sergeant JA (2006) The relationship of working memory, inhibition, and response variability in child psychopathology. J Neurosci Methods 151(1):5–14PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Aronen E, Vuontela V, Steenari M, Salmi J, Carlson S (2005) Working memory, psychiatric symptoms, and academic performance at school. Neurobiol Learn Mem 83:33–42PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    St Clair-Thompson HL, Gathercole SE (2006) Executive functions and achievements in school: shifting, updating, inhibition, and working memory. Q J Exp Psychol 59(4):745–759CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Swanson HL (2006) Cognitive processes that underlie mathematical precociousness in young children. J Exp Child Psychol 93(3):239–264PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Diamantopoulou S, Rydell A, Thorell LB, Bohlin G (2007) Impact of executive functioning and symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder on children’s peer relations and school performance. Dev Neuropsychol 32(1):521–542PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Gathercole SE, Alloway TP (2006) Practitioner review: short-term and working memory impairments in neurodevelopmental disorders: diagnosis and remedial support. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 47(1):4–15PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Ford S, Farah MS, Shera DM, Hurt H (2007) Neurocognitive correlates of problem behavior in environmentally at-risk adolescents. J Dev Behav Pediatrics 28(5):376–385CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Ozonoff S, Jensen J (1999) Specific executive function profiles in three neurodevelopmental disorders. J Autism Dev Disord 29(2):171–177PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Berl MM, Vaidya CJ, Gaillard WD (2006) Functional imaging of developmental and adaptive changes in neurocognition. Neuroimage 30(3):679–691PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Brocki K, Fan J, Fossella J (2008) Placing neuroanatomical models of executive function in a developmental context. Ann NY Acad Sci 1129:246–255PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Vuontela V, Steenari M, Carlson S, Koivisto J, Fjällberg M, Aronen ET (2003) Audiospatial and visuospatial working memory in 6–13 year old school children. Learn Memory 10(1):74CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Rebok GW, Smith CB, Pascualvaca DM, Mirsky AF, Anthony BJ, Kellam SG (1997) Developmental changes in attentional performance in urban children from eight to thirteen years. Child Neuropsychol 3(1):28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Klenberg L, Korkman M, Lahti-Nuuttila P (2001) Differential development of attention and executive functions in 3- to 12-year-old Finnish children. Dev Neuropsychol 20(1):407–428PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Brocki KC, Bohlin G (2004) Executive functions in children aged 6 to 13: a dimensional and developmental study. Dev Neuropsychol 26(2):571–593PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. 34.
    Cirino PT, Chin CE, Sevcik RA (2002) Measuring socioeconomic status: reliability and preliminary validity for different approaches. Assessment 9:145–155PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Steenari M-R, Vuontela V, Paavonen EJ, Carlson S, Fjällberg M, Aronen ET (2003) Working memory and sleep in 6- to 13-year-old schoolchildren. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 42(1):85–92PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 36.
    Achenbach TM, Rescorla L (2001) Manual for the ASEBA school-age forms & profiles. University of Vermont, research Center for Children, Youth and Families, Burlington, VTGoogle Scholar
  37. 37.
    Luciana M, Nelson CA (1998) The functional emergence of prefrontally-guided working memory systems in four- to eight-year-old children. Neuropsychologia 36(3):273–293PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 38.
    Rueda MR, Fan J, McCandliss BD, Halparin JD, Gruber DB, Lercari LP et al (2004) Development of attentional networks in childhood. Neuropsychologia 42(8):1029–1040PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 39.
    Williams BR, Ponesse JS, Schachar RJ, Logan GD, Tannock R (1999) Development of inhibitory control across the life span. Dev Psychol 35(1):205–213PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Levin HS, Culhane KA, Hartmann J, Evankovich K, Mattson AJ, Harward H, Ringholz G et al (1991) Developmental changes in performance on tests of purported frontal-lobe functioning. Dev Neuropsychol 7(3):377–395CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Anderson V (2001) Assessing executive functions in children: biological, psychological, and developmental considerations. Pediatr Rehabil 4(3):119–136PubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. 42.
    Nigg JT, Quamma JP, Greenberg MT, Kusche CA (1999) A two-year longitudinal study of neuropsychological and cognitive performance in relation to behavioral problems and competencies in elementary school children. J Abnorm Child Psychol 27(1):51PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. 43.
    Davidson MC, Amso D, Anderson LC, Diamond A (2006) Development of cognitive control and executive functions from 4 to 13 years: evidence from manipulations of memory, inhibition, and task switching. Neuropsychologia 44(11):2037–2078PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. 44.
    Garon N, Bryson SE, Smith IM (2008) Executive function in preschoolers: a review using an integrative framework. Psychol Bull 134(1):31–60PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. 45.
    Seguin JR, Pihl RO, Harden PW, Tremblay RE, Boulerice B (1995) Cognitive and neuropsychological characteristics of physically aggressive boys. J Abnorm Psychol 104(4):614PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. 46.
    Raaijmakers M, Smidts D, Sergeant J, Maassen G, Posthumus J, Engeland H et al (2008) Executive functions in preschool children with aggressive behavior: impairments in inhibitory control. J Abnorm Child Psychol 36(7):1097–1107PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 47.
    Gohier B, Ferracci L, Surguladze SA, Lawrence E, El Hage W, Kefi MZ et al (2009) Cognitive inhibition and working memory in unipolar depression. J Affect Disord 116(1–2):100–105PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. 48.
    Cataldo MG, Nobile M, Lorusso ML, Battaglia M, Molteni M (2005) Impulsivity in depressed children and adolescents: a comparison between behavioral and neuropsychological data. Psychiatry Res 136(2–3):123–133PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. 49.
    Ciairano S, Visu-Petra L, Settanni M (2007) Executive inhibitory control and cooperative behavior during early school years: a follow-up study. J Abnorm Child Psychol 35(3):335–345PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. 50.
    Brocki KC, Nyberg L, Thorell LB, Bohlin G (2007) Early concurrent and longitudinal symptoms of ADHD and ODD: relations to different types of inhibitory control and working memory. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 48(10):1033–1041PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. 51.
    Wåhlstedt C, Thorell LB, Bohlin G (2008) ADHD symptoms and executive function impairment: early predictors of later behavioral problems. Dev Neuropsychol 33(2):160PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. 52.
    Berlin L, Bohlin G, Rydell A (2003) Relations between inhibition, executive functioning, and ADHD symptoms: a longitudinal study from age 5 to 8 1/2 years. Child Neuropsychol 9(4):255–266PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. 53.
    Conway AR, Kane MJ, Engle RW (2003) Working memory capacity and its relation to general intelligence. Trends in Cognitive Science 7:547–552CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. 54.
    Blair CC, Diamond AA (2008) Biological processes in prevention and intervention: the promotion of self-regulation as a means of preventing school failure. Dev Psychopathol 20(3):899–911PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Virve Vuontela
    • 1
  • Synnöve Carlson
    • 1
    • 3
    • 4
  • Anna-Maria Troberg
    • 1
    • 2
  • Tuija Fontell
    • 2
  • Petteri Simola
    • 2
    • 5
  • Suvi Saarinen
    • 2
  • Eeva T. Aronen
    • 2
  1. 1.Neuroscience Unit, Institute of Biomedicine/PhysiologyUniversity of HelsinkiHelsinkiFinland
  2. 2.Department of Child Psychiatry, Children’s HospitalHelsinki University Central Hospital and University of HelsinkiHelsinkiFinland
  3. 3.Brain Research Unit, O.V. Lounasmaa LaboratoryAalto University School of ScienceEspooFinland
  4. 4.Medical SchoolUniversity of TampereTampereFinland
  5. 5.Department of PsychologyHelsinki UniversityHelsinkiFinland

Personalised recommendations