Executive Function: What is it?

It’s time to leave but your toddler screams, runs away and goes limp, so you pick her up and haul her out the door. Your preschooler wants the engine, not the coal car, so he grabs it from his playmate, and a series of “that’s mine, no I had it first” ensues. Your school-age child plays with the dog and talks to himself in the mirror rather than getting ready for school and misses the bus. It’s 8 pm and your teenager tells you she has to have red poster board and illustrations of cell parts and functions – for a project due in the morning. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

What is executive function?

This term refers to the set of skills these children will practice and strengthen over time to help them regulate their emotional reactions, control their behavior and plan and organize their thinking. The three primary executive functioning skills are working memory, inhibitory control and mental flexibility.

Working Memory is our capacity to hold information in mind and manipulate it in our heads for a short period of time. This is the skill the school-age child will need to remember to get dressed, brush his teeth and walk downstairs to breakfast.

Inhibitory Control is the skill we use to control our emotions and thoughts so we can focus our attention amidst distractions and impulses. This is the skill our preschooler will develop to help him wait until it is his turn to play with the engine.

Mental Flexibility is the ability to switch gears depending on the situation and to adjust our thinking in the presence of new information, and it allows us to fix our mistakes. Next time our teenager has a big project she may learn to start in advance of the due date, bring home materials needed to complete the assignment and give her parents a heads up in case she needs their help.

These skills begin to emerge in infancy but the full range of executive functioning skills continues to develop throughout young adulthood with improvements in attention and coordination among the different executive skills.

Why is it important?

Executive functioning skills are often referred to as the “air traffic control system” for the brain. They are the skills we use to navigate the challenges of our day-to-day world. The more efficient our air traffic control system, the better able we are to make good decisions, develop healthy relationships, be productive learners and resist negative impulses. The development of strong executive skills will support academic learning and socialization. Children will find it easier to pay attention in structured classroom settings, take the perspective of another to negotiate differences and regulate their emotional reactions to everyday challenges. In fact, longitudinal studies show that executive function in early childhood predicts positive health, financial stability and lower incidence of criminal offenses in adulthood.

What improves it?

Current research shows that executive functioning skills are shaped by early experience and, although rarely taught, they can be improved, especially in young children. So what works?

Children who attend preschools that encourage dramatic play, role-play, child-to-child teaching, hands-on learning, learning through play and focus on building social skills often show better executive functioning skills, reading and math than children enrolled in preschools focused on direct instruction. Montessori curricula, Tools of the Mind, and in our area, Indianapolis Cooperative Preschools are designed specifically with these goals in mind.

Positive parenting (when your child has a problem, discuss it with them), higher monitoring (keeping track of what your child is seeing), and lower levels of punishment are associated with good development of inhibition skills in 2- to 8-year-olds. Early parent-child relationships where parents are more mind-minded (engage in conversations about their own and their child’s feelings and thoughts), sensitive (provide appropriate and consistent responses to their child’s cues) and supportive of a child’s autonomy (encouraging and hinting, letting children make their own choices in problem-solving situations) are related to improvements in children’s’ executive function.

There is also evidence that aerobic exercise, martial arts, yoga and mindfulness practice (meditation, sensory awareness) improves executive function. For some great resources on what you can do day to day to shape your child’s executive functioning skills check out the following resources:

Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare

No Mind Left Behind: Understanding and Fostering Executive Control – The Eight Essential Brain Skills Every Child Needs to Thrive by Adam J. Cox

Indianapolis Area Cooperative Preschools http://preschoolco-op.org/

Developmental psychologist Jessica Beer combines her real world experience as a mother with her professional training as a researcher to provide parents with a practical way to apply the most current findings in childhood development research to their everyday life. Jessica is also a co-founder of The Urban Chalkboard playcafe, and welcomes questions and feedback from readers at [email protected].

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april 2024 Indys child magazine

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