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15 January 2020

What is the impact of stress and environment on executive function and motivation for primary school children?

We caught up with Toby Bartle, Registered Psychologist and PhD Candidate at James Cook University, to find out why he chose CANTAB when looking at the impact of stress and environment on executive function and motivation for primary school children.

Can you tell us more about yourself?

I am a Registered Psychologist (Provisional) and PhD Candidate (Behavioural Neuroscience, Education) with a strong interest in using a biopsychosocial perspective to understand the influence of stress, motivation and cognitive functioning on self-regulation in an applied setting. I have worked in mental health, disabilities and education for over 10 years now and remain fascinated by the interplay between brain, behaviour and context. These relationships are so intricate and nuanced - impacting on the way we engage with our own unique contexts. Through my research, I hope to gain an advanced understanding of these complex interactions from a biopsychosocial perspective.

Which cohort are you working with?

My research addresses the interactive role of stress, motivation and executive function in student engagement among Primary School students in Year 4, 5 and 6. Middle childhood represents a key time in the developmental course during which children develop characteristic patterns of interacting with the world. These patterns are heavily influenced by executive functions underlying the interplay between brain behaviour and context that begin to mature to the point of being complex during middle childhood. This maturity allows for (i) multicomponent plans that involve a number of prolonged steps, (ii) inhibiting even motivating responses in favour of sustained applied attention towards a task and (iii) considering multiple perspectives.

What is the rationale behind your study?

Well-developed executive functions are crucial for self-regulating behaviour in a goal directed way. Self-regulated behaviour requires selectively attending to relevant stimuli such as instruction and task demands, while also inhibiting unhelpful behavioural, emotional and cognitive impulses. At times, it can involve considering multiple perspectives as well, approaching a problem, situation or task from a different angle. In this way, executive functions are crucial for guiding the intentional behaviour required for students to learn in an educational context.

Executive functions are only needed to self-regulate behaviour when motivation is low. Intrinsically motivated students, who regulate their behaviour through internal self-directed intentions, rather than externally driven demands, tend to perform better in school. However, despite the apparent relationship between motivation and executive function, the understanding of the interaction between these two mechanisms remains unclear, particularly when considered in the wider environmental contexts of home and school.

Therefore, this research aims to understand the interplay between important biopsychosocial mechanisms underpinning student engagement in Primary School students.

What is your research question?

In developing a deeper understanding of the interplay between key brain, behaviour and context interactions, my PhD research aims to answer two key research questions:

How does stress interact with both executive function and motivation in primary school children and does their classroom environment and home environment influence this interaction?
How does executive function interact with self-regulatory ability and style (internal vs external) to influence children’s ability to persist in non-motivating tasks?

What are the implications of your research?

Investigating the interactions between brain, behaviour and context – like stress, motivation and executive function – will lead to a greater understanding of how to promote student engagement more effectively. Promoting well-established patterns of engagement in primary school students greatly reduces the risk of students later disengaging, potentially leaving school early and being at increased risk of negative outcomes later in life. Therefore, promoting well-established patterns of engagement in primary school will reduce the risk of already disadvantaged students potentially perpetuating an intergenerational cycle of disadvantage. As such, this project will have significant implications for students, parents, teachers and potentially the wider community as well; there is a large social cost associated with student disengagement.

Why did you choose CANTAB for your study?

CANTAB are the most reliable, valid, sensitive and cost effective way of collecting comprehensive and accurate information on executive function in Primary School Students. CANTAB measures are the gold standard of cognitive research software. Test batteries are delivered digitally using an iPad, making standardised data collection at multiple data sites a simple process. Moreover, digital data capture means comprehensive data sets. The level of information provided from each CANTAB measure allows for in-depth analysis of highly specific components of cognitive functioning, such as the response inhibition component of inhibitory control.

What are the next steps for your research?

CANTAB measures represent just one part of a much larger data collection protocol. Using a combination of observer and self-report psychological measures, neurobiological samples to test for cortisol levels and sociocultural measures like census housing data, this project aims to build a comprehensive biopsychosocial data set for analysis. CANTAB measures like Spatial Span (SSP), Rapid Visual Information Processing (RVP), Stockings of Cambridge (SOC) and the Multitasking Test (MTT) will be instrumentally important in contributing comprehensive information on executive function to enhance the overall dataset. In doing so, CANTAB provides one of the missing ‘brain’ pieces of the brain-behaviour-context puzzle.

Tags : cognition | cantab | cantab testimonial | cognitive testing

Author portrait

Toby Bartle, Registered Psychologist and PhD Candidate - James Cook University