The benefits of adding a brief measure of simple reaction time to the assessment of executive function skills in early childhood

Michael T. Willoughby, Clancy B. Blair, Laura J. Kuhn, Brooke E. Magnus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Early childhood represents a period of rapid cognitive developmental change in executive function (EF) skills along with a variety of related cognitive processes, including processing speed. This leads to interpretational challenges in that children's performance on EF tasks reflects more than EF skills per se. We tested whether the inclusion of a brief measure of simple reaction time (SRT) during EF assessments could help to partially address this challenge. Data were drawn from a cross-sectional convenience sample of 830 preschool-aged children. Individual differences in SRT were significantly associated with performance on all tasks (R2s = .09–.26); slower performance on the SRT task was associated with poorer performance on each EF task. Age-related differences in individual EF tasks were reduced by approximately one half after accounting for age-related differences in SRT, and EF task scores were less coherent (i.e., less strongly intercorrelated with each other) after the removal of SRT. Age-related differences in EF were smaller (Cohen ds = 1.36 vs. 0.78), and poverty-related differences in EF were larger (Cohen ds = 0.30 vs. 0.46) after accounting for SRT-related variation. Finally, consistent with previous studies, SRT-related differences in fluid reasoning were mediated by EF skills. Results are discussed with respect to using a brief measure of SRT to partially address the problem of measurement impurity at the level of individual EF tasks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)30-44
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of experimental child psychology
StatePublished - Jun 2018


  • Assessment
  • Cognitive development
  • Early childhood
  • Executive function
  • Measurement impurity
  • Simple reaction time

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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