Research Article: Assessing children’s cognitive flexibility with the Shape Trail Test

Date Published: May 31, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Amy Y. C. Chan, Sarah-Jane Morgan, Sam Gilbert.


In this paper we report an initial validation of the Shape Trail Test–Child Version (STT-CV) with a non-clinical sample of children aged 6 to 9 years. The STT-CV has been developed as an age-appropriate and culturally fair direct downward extension of the Trail Making Test (TMT) for the assessment of cognitive flexibility. Children completed the STT-CV and four established measures of executive functions that assessed working memory, inhibitory control and task switching. Results showed the expected age-based differences in completion times for both parts of the STT-CV (Trail A and Trail B). Children’s performance on the STT-CV correlated significantly with all four measures of executive functions. After controlling for the effects of chronological age, completion times for Trail B remained correlated with most other measures of executive functions. These findings provide emerging evidence for the utility of the STT-CV, and highlight the need for designing and using appropriate variants of the TMT in the behavioural assessment of cognitive flexibility in developmentally and culturally diverse populations.

Partial Text

Executive function entails a broad class of mental processes that enable individuals to attend to relevant information and to respond appropriately to current task demands. It reflects the efficiency in three core areas of cognitive competence: working memory (temporarily holding and processing information in mind), inhibitory control (controlling one’s attention or behaviour so as to refrain from responding impulsively or producing a prepotent but inappropriate response), and cognitive flexibility (adjusting one’s behaviour flexibly according to new demands in a problem) [1]. Effective executive functioning is crucial to the development of important academic and social skills in childhood and beyond, with children’s executive functions being implicated in the development of skills such as mathematics ability (e.g., [2, 3]) and emotion regulation (e.g., [4]).

The pattern of children’s performance in Trail A and Trail B of the STT-CV is shown in Fig 1. Table 1 shows the descriptive statistics on children’s performance on all other measures in the present study. As expected, older children performed better than younger children on all tasks. There was a statistically significant effect of age group on the key performance index for each of the Day/Night task [F(3, 64) = 10.72, p < .001, η2 = .33], Backward Digit Span task [F(3, 64) = 4.79, p = .004, η2 = .18], Counting Span task [F(3, 64) = 7.05, p < .001, η2 = .25], and Card Sort task [F(3, 64) = 3.43, p = .02, η2 = .14]. Notably, as per the scaled completion time data for the Card Sort task, younger children were less efficient in accomplishing the same ceiling-level accuracy compared to their older counterparts. By comparison, for the Day/Night task, while 6-year-old children were slower in their responses and showed relatively high proportions of incorrect and self-corrected responses, children at the older age levels showed predominantly correct and self-corrected responses and completed the task more efficiently (see Table 1). The Shape Trail Test has been identified as a time-efficient and culturally fair analogue of the traditional TMT in the assessment of task switching competence, a core component of executive function [18]. In the present study, we developed and tested a child version of the STT that included key features of the adult version of the STT while also preserving important features of the child version of the traditional TMT. Consistent with previous research on the STT [27], the development of the STT-CV has been guided by the assumption that by 6 years of age, children are competent in discriminating between basic geometric shapes (square vs. circle) and that they have developed basic numerical literary for counting. Normally developing 6- to 9-year-old children showed reliable age-based differences in performance on both Trail A and Trail B of the STT-CV. As expected, the switch cost in completion time from Trail A and Trail B decreased as age increased. Our data suggest that the STT-CV may be a valid assessment task to observe the development of task switching competence in the early school years. Furthermore, children’s performance in the STT-CV correlated significantly with measures of working memory, inhibitory control and task switching, thus providing early evidence of the construct validity of the STT-CV.   Source:


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