Mind wandering in children: Examining task-unrelated thoughts in computerized tasks and a classroom lesson, and the association with different executive functions

Esther H. H. Keulers*, Lisa M. Jonkman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

385 Downloads (Pure)


Mind wandering is associated with worse performance on cognitively demanding tasks, but this concept is largely unexplored in typically developing children and little is known about the relation between mind wandering and specific executive functions (EFs). This study aimed, first, to measure and compare children's mind wandering in controlled computerized tasks as well as in an educational setting and, second, to examine the association between mind wandering and the three core EFs, namely inhibition, working memory, and set shifting/switching. A total of 52 children aged 9-11 years performed a classroom listening task and a computerized EF battery consisting of flanker, running span, and attention switching tasks. Mind wandering was measured using online probed and/or retrospective self-reports of task-unrelated thoughts (TUTs) during task performance. Children reported TUTs on 20-25% of the thought probes, which did not differ between classroom and EF tasks. Regression models, hierarchically adding the three core EFs, accounted for a small but significant portion of variance in TUT frequency when measured in class and retrospectively after EF tasks, but not when measured online in EF tasks. Children with worse inhibition were more prone to mind wander during classroom and EF tasks. Lower attention switching accuracy also explained variation in retrospectively reported TUTs during EF tasks. Working memory was not a significant predictor. These results suggest that mind wandering is common and reliably measurable in children in controlled computerized and educational tasks. Lower executive control abilities predict more frequent mind wandering, although different EFs are related to mind wandering in diverse tasks/measures. (C) 2018 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)276-290
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2019


  • Educational setting
  • Executive function
  • Inhibition/interference control
  • Mind wandering
  • Task-unrelated thought
  • Typically developing children
  • LIFE

Cite this